Social Innovation: beyond the buzz


8th Nov 2019

Social Innovation: beyond the buzz

Social Innovation: beyond the buzz

From organ transplant deliveries by drone to smartphone apps that help diagnose eye disease and plant-based burgers that taste just like meat right through to entrepreneurship programmes that aim to build thriving early child development centres - the social innovation sector is a varied and dynamic one that aims to find innovative solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems.

What is social innovation?

The Stanford Graduate School of Business defines social innovation as “the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress.”

That’s a pretty broad definition that encompasses a range of sub-sectors including:

  • Social entrepreneurs and enterprises who build profitable businesses to address local problems
  • Digital social innovation which relies on digital technology to find solutions
  • The circular economy which is concerned with eliminating waste by using resources continuously
  • Innovation hubs where communities of likeminded innovators, policy makers, business people and civil society come together to drive innovation

This wide variety of organisations that operate in the social innovation space have been born out of the need to create more solutions at scale than those that are conceptualised, designed and implemented by local communities to address local problems.    

Although the definition of social innovation is a broad one, when many people think of innovation they immediately think of digital technology, apps, robotics and many other features of the fourth industrial revolution. But social innovation isn’t limited to technology. Innovation can also come in the form of a product or programme feature or it can be an innovation around a process or structure.

So why is social innovation important?

Social innovation is important for a myriad of reasons but the most important ones are:

  1. It strengthens civil society by building local solutions and expertise
  2. It is an inclusive process that brings more actors into the development space
  3. It identifies new ways of working that is transforming existing development models
  4. It encourages collaboration and co-operation across sectors and among different actors
  5. It helps improves processes and structures across the value-chain

What are the challenges with social innovation?

Despite the buzz and huge potential that social innovation promises there are some serious challenges that the sector faces.

The most significant challenge for social innovators is taking their innovations to scale to have a transformative impact. Increasingly funders want to see projects they have funded taken to scale but very often social change makers struggle to scale up. One reason that scale up can be difficult is that the focus is often on diffusing a model or product, informed by a consumer centric approach.

Research by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation found that there are actually three models that may offer more effective pathways for social innovations to take their ideas to scale. These are:

  1. Scale out: this approach changes policies, law and legislation to change the rules of the game by partnering with organisations or using advocacy 
  2. Scale up: this approach aims to impact greater numbers by replicating a model or solution or disseminating key principles
  3. Scale deep: this approach changes values, beliefs and cultural frameworks through story-telling and by investing in transformative learning and cultures of practice

These different pathways require organisations to consider the following:

  • Should the organisation reframe its purpose to align with going to scale?
  • Refine ‘what’ is being scaled, is this a concept, programme or principle? 
  • What are the different types of diffusion available: franchising, social enterprise models, affiliation or accreditation approaches that could be used? 
  • What are the non-negotiables when replicating the innovation?
  • What infrastructure of support that will be provided if disseminating principles?
  • Could scale up be best achieved through policy change that disrupts failing systems?
  • Is there space to link existing community level policy interventions to establish a movement?
  • Is there space to establish communities of learning to spread knowledge and foster innovation?
  • Would new partnerships enable growth, access to funding, learning, mentorship to support scale-up?
  • Is new funding or a new funding model required to enable going to scale?
  • Would greater emphasis on research and monitoring and evaluation support the move to scale?

What are the challenges with taking social innovation to scale?

No matter which approach a social innovator chooses almost all will face challenges. Research by Elrha in their report Too Tough to Scale: Challenges to Scaling Innovation in the Humanitarian Sector  identifies five 5 key challenges:

  1. Social Innovations often aren’t geared for scale as they don’t address the right problem or these wasn’t sufficient planning for scale during the early stages of development.
  2. The sector doesn’t have sufficient knowledge or skills to support scale up and as a result they aren’t able to use the full range of strategies to support scale up and they lack resources with the right skills for the job.
  3. There is insufficient funding available to support the process as funding is often restricted, short-term and funders are deterred by the high risk associated with the process
  4. A lack of evidence on the impact of humanitarian innovations
  5. Structural challenges within the development sector deter innovation and attempts to go to scale

No matter how an organisation approaches the job of scaling up, there are some cross-cutting strategies that social innovators use when tackling the issue of going to scale. These include:

  • making scale a conscious choice
  • analysing root causes and clarifying purpose using a systems-change approach
  • building networks and partnerships to support and enable expansion
  • seeking new resources to enable the new vision and a commitment to evaluation to review the success.

Some of these strategies look at the individual organisation the Elrha report points to three solutions that aim to address the systemic barriers that get in the way of organisations going to scale.

  1. Funding: there is urgent need for unrestricted funding, to make funding available for evaluations and to provide long-term funding that supports an organisation throughout their lifecycle.
  2. Structural changes to the development eco-system: by focusing on pathways and incentives to mainstream innovation, looking at innovation approaches used in the private sector and how can structures be changed to focus on investment behaviour
  3. Share knowledge: social innovators, innovation hubs, labs and accelerators should be focusing more on research, sharing insights, case studies and impact evaluations to build the evidence base for how organisations make the transformation successfully.

Social innovation plays a vitally role in finding creative solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems but taking these solutions to scale is one of the biggest challenges the development sector faces. There is an urgent need to move beyond the plethora of successful early-stage innovations and develop ways to systemically enable innovation at scale.

To read more about social innovation, its place in the development sector and examples of organisations that are bringing innovative solutions to the fore, download the Next Generation 2020 Research Report Disruption with Impact here.