User-driven Social Innovation: Involving young criminals and disadvantaged mothers

Innovation generated by users has in recent years been the subject of considerable interest.  For the most part this has focused on commercial solutions, from mountain-biking to medical equipment. Businesses are encouraged to find ways to develop and integrate the insights of these “creative users” into their products and services.

The advantage of such innovation is that users are so close to the action.  They experience the product at first hand, understand how it works in practice and are the first to experience any problems. This ‘real-life’ knowledge is said to make them particularly well suited to develop new ideas.

In a recent article in the Journal of Social Entrepreneurship*, Peter Svensson and Lars Bengtsson (2010) draw on the idea of user driven innovation in the commercial sector and apply it to explore the organizing of social innovations.

Instead of users who have with issues with products, users are “people with social problems”.  Through this lens they explore two innovations in Stockholm, one shaped by “young criminals”, and the other by “disadvantaged mothers”.

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Transforming education in the developing countries

Here is a TED Talk released today by Charles Leadbeater on the topic of education in developing countries.  He argues that the western model of education just doesn’t fit the challenges of everyday life in many of these countries.  Leadbeater provides examples of novel approaches to education around the world and considers how they might be shared with the other thousands/millions of children and adults seeking education. He argues for a “Chinese Restaurant” approach to diffusion over a McDonald’s…in other words schools share similar principles but don’t look the same.

There are Chinese restaurants everywhere, but there is no Chinese restaurant chain. Yet, everyone knows what is a Chinese restaurant. They know what to expect, even though it’ll be subtly different and the colors will be different and the name will be different. You know a Chinese restaurant when you see it. These people work with the Chinese restaurant model. Same principles, different applications and different settings. Not the McDonald’s model. The McDonald’s model scales. The Chinese restaurant model spreads.

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Transformative Social Innovation

For many, the interest in social innovation is motivated by the idea of transformation. The goal isn’t just about creating a novel solution to a social problem, its about transforming the social problem once and for all. This is not about creating ripples, this is about ‘sea change’. That’s what makes it so appealing to those who want to change the world.

The problem is that transforming social problems through a novel solution is incredibly difficult. A dominant strategy is one that tends to focus on diffusion. To transform a social problem is to ‘overwhelm it’ with the solution. The logic of this approach is compelling.

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