At some point a decision has to be made to choose one definition of social innovation and work with it. One choice is to draw on the work of James Phills, Kriss Deiglmeier and Dale Miller at the Center for Social Innovation, Stanford Graduate School of Business.

They define social innovation as:

a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals”
(Phills et al., 2008, p. 36).

Why this definition? It is has four clear constitutive components to understand and explore social innovation.

1. A Focus on Social Problems

A central feature of those exploring social innovation is an interest in solving social problems.  Social innovation is fundamentally about tackling social problems. Phills et al.’s definition of social innovation cemented this relationship – for them, the ‘social’ in ‘social innovation’ is connected to societal ‘problems’ or ‘needs’.  They argue that there

tends to be a greater consensus within societies about what constitutes a social need or problem and what kinds of social objectives are valuable (for example, justice, fairness, environmental preservation, improved health, arts and culture, and better education). Phills et al. (2008, p. 38).

This seems to make a lot of sense – rather than solely focusing on the characteristics of a novel solution, which is open to considerable interpretation and debate  – there is more “traction” in concentrating on things on which we can all agree – that we have problems!

2. Designing Novel Solutions

In October 2009 the Lien Centre for Social Innovation at the University of Singapore announced the winners of its $1 million (Singapore dollars) social innovation competition. The winning entries included rats able to sniff out landmines, a social enterprise that recycles unwanted clothes for the rural poor in India, an online platform to fund scholarships for Cambodian and Vietnamese children, and interlocking bricks to reduce the costs of assembling basic housing. These are examples of the second major constitutive component of social innovation, as defined by Phills et al. (2008); the interest in novel solutions to social problems. These solutions can take many forms:

A social innovation can be a product, production process, or technology…but it can also be a principle, an idea, a piece of legislation, a social movement, an intervention, or some combination of them (Phills et al., 2008, p. 39).

This potential variety is reflected in the examples in the literature such as Charter schools (Phills et al., 2008), farm agents (Drucker, 1987), and the first street lights in Philadelphia (Mumford, 2002).

3. Open to Different Organizing Arrangements

How might novel solutions to social problems be organized? Well – in theory – by anyone!  The Phills et al. definition does not define a particular organizational type as being necessary. This view that social innovation can be organized by any sector is shared by many people interested in social innovation. Everyone can be a “change maker” and we should remain “agnostic about the sources of social value” (Phills et al. 2008, p. 37). In recent years we have seen activity from all three sectors – public, private and nonprofit – as well as the creation of new organizational forms – eg, Community Interest Companies and B Corps – focused on social innovation.

4. Leading to societal benefits

A fourth component underpinning the study and practice of social innovation is concerned with its effects.

A novel solution to a social problem qualifies as a social innovation if it is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals” (Phills et al., 2008, p. 36).

This interest in generating social value is viewed as the quality that makes social innovation distinctive from other types of innovation. Social innovations are solutions that create benefits or reduce societal costs in ways that “go beyond the private gains and general benefits of market activity” (Phills et al., 2008, p. 39).

For many scholars and practitioners social innovation involves creating  transformative effects – some significant change in social arrangements as a result of introducing the novel solution. For many, what distinguishes social innovation from other types of innovation is the intention of the innovator to transform social arrangements. The association with the idea of transformation is used to differentiate social innovations from those that only result in incremental gains.

Social innovations require “changing how societies think” (Mulgan, Ali, Halkett & Sanders, 2007, p. 22) about social problems in ways that may require “a significant, creative and sustainable shift” (Nilsson, 2003, p. 3). Success is when the new ideas become a “changed common sense” made possible by “a series of reinterpretations by practitioners, beneficiaries, funders and the wider public” (Mulgan et al., 2009, pp. 22-23). One social innovator, Al Etmanski, describes success as when ideas get into the “water supply”. Such a shift may involve substantial change in the “basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system” (Westley, 2008).

The billion dollar question is how can we find, and then organize, such transformative social innovations? Much of the early emphasis is on the replication and diffusion of individual solutions – often across a region or country. But transformations can occur when people organizing solutions in their communities – in everyday places. A challenge for those searching for transformative social innovation is to discern the difference between solutions that transform and those that may promise much but deliver little.

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