Participation & Social Innovation: The ‘real thing’

One thing stands out when scanning the literature on social innovation.  Participation.  You just can’t get around it – the act of working on novel solutions to social problems involves a crowd.

What’s surprising then is that many of the detailed examples of social innovation focus on the work of particularly special people (Bornstein, 2007; Elkington & Hartigan, 2008).

We know that behind these social entrepreneurs are lots of people playing crucial enabling and support roles – providing expertise and funding.

We also know that people can come together and produce amazing things as the numerous examples on the web demonstrate – such as Ohmynews that uses web based technology to involve citizen journalists in South Korea or ReachOut! – a web-based peer-to-peer approach to tackle depression among young people that started in Australia and is now spreading in the US.

Less known, and perhaps more important, is the crucial element of participation by those with a direct experience of the social problem.

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Social Innovation in the News March 31st 2010

A few links on social innovation in the last week…

  • Competitions – Semi-Finalists announced for the Dell Social Innovation Competition –  “Tseai Energy Unlimited (, a company started by University of Maryland Hillman Entrepreneurs Program student Trevor Young developing bioprocessing plants to bring electricity to underdeveloped countries and boost their economies. The Financial Times Social Innovation Award Winners are also announced. Check out SparkSeed – support and funding for social entrepreneurs – and a comment in the Huffington Post.
  • The White House Social Innovation Fund – John Bridgeland writes in the Huffington Post about the challenges of running of the Fund – he should know having being involved in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and USA Freedom Corps for national and community service.
  • Events – a two-day conference hosted by Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada (YSEC), in partnership with social innovation advisory service MaRS, “to equip a diverse core of leaders with the skills, resources and community essential for creating projects with lasting impact.”  A serious focus on mentoring.

Defining social innovation…

One of the challenges facing those interested in social innovation is finding a workable definition. A scan of the literature reveals that social innovation covers a whole range of different meanings and so, while it is popular, it is conceptually difficult to nail down. That is why one particular Stanford Social Innovation article in 2008 was so important.

James Phills, Kriss Deiglmeier and Dale Miller sought to find a way through the multiple definitions and feared that it was becoming indistinguishable from the popular terms of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. Although they could see much in common they put forward a definition that they hoped would create some boundaries around the term and spark further interest.

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