The interest in social innovation has grown over the last 10 years but it’s not new – since the dawn of time individuals, families and communities, governments, and companies have developed innovative solutions to tackle social problems. What is new is the energy being invested into taking our social innovation abilities to a higher level. Around the world there are initiatives to connect innovators, share knowledge of what works, find ways to attract resources, and develop new partnerships that cross communities and sectors. And what is also new – Governments are starting to recognize that they are a critical partner in scaling proven social innovation.
Many governments around the world are exploring ways of shifting the locus of social innovation from a centralized state-led approach to local communities. It makes a lot of sense: It can empower people, utilize local knowledge, create customized solutions and reduce costs. But Dominic Chalmers*, from the University of Strathclyde, argues that this shift would require recognizing some significant barriers.
Social Innovation Barriers
Chalmers’ review of the literature identifies three main barriers to individuals and organizations engaged in social innovation:
- Protectionism and risk aversion – Chalmers states that a prevailing popular assumption that all people share a common homogenous desire to develop optimal solutions to social problems is a naïve one. His review of the literature highlights competing organizational objectives/logics and how privatization policies can reinforce and extend existing silos/domains rather than bridge them. He also believes that the commissioning agents – governments and philanthropists – are predisposed to conservative decision-making and avoid risks so that they favour incremental rather than disruptive innovation.
- Problem complexity – the work to tackle complex social problems involves cooperation across multi-stakeholder environments. The literature reveals how difficult this work is in practice as existing organizational structures and cultures are just too rigid. The end result is partial solutions that deal with symptoms and not the systemic root causes.
- Networks and collaboration – the literature also highlights the problems for social innovators to make connections to established networks as their issues don’t fit neatly with existing categories.
The net effect, Chalmers warns, may “hasten the ‘fizzling out’” of interest in social innovation and it never realizing its potential.
An Open Innovation Lens
Chalmers argues that these barriers might be overcome by drawing on an “open” paradigm and in particular the study of open innovation (citing writers such as Chesbrough). Researchers have demonstrated how some businesses have benefited from dramatically rethinking their approach to developing new ideas/products. Instead of generating all knowledge in-house, companies that adopt an open innovative approach invest in looking outward, beyond their organizational boundaries, and develop learning networks. Open innovation is also associated with privileging user involvement – directly involving consumers/customers in new solution development. The overall result for some has been radical innovation. Chalmers recognizes that this literature has been largely focused on multinationals and technology companies but believes that it could help to unlock some of the barriers facing social innovation.
Many thanks to Graham for allowing me to post some ideas about our new book, The Power of Social Innovation…
One of the ways we introduce the book is in the context of existing literature on social entrepreneurship:
Many have written on the efforts and attributes of individual “social entrepreneurs,” a term popularized by the exceptional work of Bill Drayton of Ashoka. Notable contributions include How to Change the World by David Bornstein; The Power of Unreasonable People, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan; and Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek’s Life Entrepreneurs. Recent books such as Forces for Good, by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, and The Charismatic Organization, by Shirley Sagawa and Deb Jospin, chronicle the features of high–performing organizations run by social entrepreneurs. This book builds on those insights but looks beyond entrepreneurial individuals and organizations to entrepreneurial networks and fertile communities.
In truth the books we listed are all fairly recent and fall within a narrow sliver of a young field. The topics we write about build on much more extensive discourses in the fields of public management, nonprofit management, networked governance, social policy, urban planning, education policy, and more.
During our research we often identified some underexplored tension between government and social innovators, only to be reminded that many others had studied and written on that very topic. Continue reading