What is Social Innovation? 

What is Social Innovation? 

The “Horizon 2020” Project cites Social innovation as the first policy adopted in the field of Industrial Innovation, acknowledging that it plays an important role in European change processes by encouraging the emergence and development of best practices in that specific sector.

With Social Innovation multiple subjects (Enterpreneurs, Colleges, Government agencies, Private Companies, Foundations, etc.) participate to the economic and social development of a specific community.

The results of Social Innovation – new ideas that meet unmet needs – are all around us, not only in the non-profit sector, nut also in different areas of action, like education and training, circular economy, sharing economy and social housing and cultural/creative/artistic enhancement of skills, identities and territories. 

The process of S.I. can lead to detect and realize new models of public health, open source software, fair trade, pedagogical models of childcare, microcredit or solutions to the main problems of homeless.

Most famous Social Innovators from around the world widely celebrated are:

  • Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen; 
  • Kenyan Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai;
  • Saul Alinsky, the highly influential evangelist of community organising in the USA;
  • Abbe Pierre, whose approaches to homelessness in France were copied in some 5 countries. 

Their stories emphasise Empowerment and the “Do it Yourself” model as the most successful ways to enabling people to solve their own problems, reaching radical social changes.

The best way to let the Innovation thrives comes from the idea to create effective alliances between small organisations, entrepreneurs and big organisations, which are able to guarantee the scalability of ideas, with patterns of growth dependent on the mix of capacities and environmental conditions.

Social Innovation Enterprises help the building of new social relationships between previously separate individuals and groups, which contribute to the diffusion and embedding of growth processes, fueling a cumulative dynamic whereby each innovation opens up the possibility of further innovations.

Social Innovators new business ideas’, often begin from a particular individual or community’s problems and passions.

The growth of new Social Business Models, usually takes longer than in other sectors because of the need to generate a more complex set of partners and a more complex economic base, even if the most successful examples can be replicated in time through growth or emulation. 

“The starting point for innovation is an awareness of a need that is not being met and some idea of how it could be met.”

Looking for the ‘positive deviants’ – the approaches that work when most others are failing – gives insights into what might be possible, and usually at much lower cost than top down solutions.next, needs have to be tied to new possibilities. new possibilities may be technological, other possibilities may derive from new organisational forms, or possibilities may derive from new knowledge.

Innovators generally have a wide peripheral vision and are good at spotting how apparently unrelated methods and ideas can be combined, generating ideas by understanding needs and identifying potential solutions.

Developing, prototyping and piloting ideas

Any innovation process involves taking a promising idea and testing it out in practice. Only few plans survive their first encounter with reality, but it is through action that they evolve and improve. 

Social innovations may be helped by market research and or competitors’ analysis but progress is often achieved more quickly by turning the idea into a prototype or pilot and then galvanising enthusiasm.
To get “free money” form foundations and philanthropists can be very helpful to support ideas in this phase and also governments have become more sophisticated in their use of evidence and knowledge.
At last, also Incubators have started to take off in the public sector and amongst ngos, even if practice and understanding remains very patchy.

Assessing then scaling up and diffusing the good ones

When an idea is ready to be developed, innovations usually spread in a ‘curve’, with an initial phase of slow growth. Subsequently there is a phase of rapid take-off and therefore a slowdown in the arrival of “maturity”.

Learning and evolving

Innovations continue to change through a “learning and adaptation stage”. After that, they could become very different related to the expectations of the pioneers. Experience may show unintended consequences, or unexpected applications according to the economic and social development of a specific community of reference.


Tag: Geoff Mulgan, muhammad yunus, Wangari maathai, saul alinsky

 david bornstein, Jeroo billimoria, vera cordeiro, taddy blecher,

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