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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Social Innovation and Transformation

For many, what distinguishes social innovation from other types of innovation is in its commitment to transform (e.g., Mumford, 2002; Goldsmith et al., 2010;Westley et al., 2006).

While there is no consensus on a universal definition, there is agreement that social innovation can bring about transformative change (Goldenberg et al., 2009, p. iv).

The idea of transformation is used differentiate social innovation from those that only result in “incremental gains” (New Zealand Social Innovation Centre, 2010).

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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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