Why we need social activists to be our mentors for social innovation.

Why we need social activists to be our mentors for social innovation.

While innovation focuses on the practical implementation of ideas that result in new goods or services or improvements (Wiki), the concept of social innovation focuses attention on the ideas and solutions that create social value as well as the processes through which they are generated, regardless of where they are coming from.

What distinguishes standard innovation of products and services from social innovations are the types of problems you're trying to solve and how you measure success. Social innovations aim to resolve social not just individual needs, resulting from for example working conditions, education, community development or health (Wiki). These are complex systemic issues and when social innovation works well it drives social progress rather than just individual gain. (Stanford Business School explains it here.)

The disciplines applied across innovation for personal gain and social progress are similar but levels of complexity and the ability to measure and evaluate the impact is both far reaching and complex. Not only are the gains more subjective, identifying the dependencies are also challenging. To take climate change as a point in case - quality of life improved considerably but the impact on the environment was an unintended consequence to otherwise positive 'social progress'.

The Standard Social Innovation Review have identified drivers for contemporary social innovation:

  • Exchange of ideas and values
  • Shifts in roles and relationships
  • Integration of private capital with public and philanthropic support

Their view is that the most difficult and important problems cannot be understood or solved without involving the non-profit, public, and private sectors.

You can still apply some of the principles that those of us have applied to new service development in private organisations, starting with empathy for the people we are trying to impact. What case studies illustrate is that the gaps in our world view and in some cases the tendency to apply over-simplified solutions to highly complex issues we don't fully understand, often exacerbate the very issues we're trying to alleviate. Our conflicting values of what success means can get in the way. Success after all is subjective rather than objective.

Here is a short animation I produced for an organisation called Aidlink, a charity that supports some of the poorest communities in Ghana, Uganda and Kenya. Aidlink has worked hard to understand and respect the values of the people they want to support and empower.

They seek partnership with local NGOs who share their values and vision, so that solutions are culturally sensitive rather than European solutions applied to African problems. I had the privilege of visiting educational programmes on the ground in Kenya, including schools for girls fully managed by locals. I saw first-hand how people's, particularly women's, agency and power were enhanced and grew over time through these collaborations.

Local community leaders driving progress don't call themselves social innovators. Some are parents who want a better life for their children. Others are activists who are passionate about human rights, particularly women's rights. They identify problems, design solutions that work in their communities and then seek funding so they can scale well thought through solutions. As professional innovators we have a lot to learn from their approach - they are deeply involved in their communities, culturally sensitive so much so that they can shed light on the hidden consequences of their interventions so that the progress they make has the intended positive outcome on their communities.

As I indicated above, what is progress on one hand has inadvertently contributed to other social and environmental issues that now need to be urgently addressed. It can be done. Some are already doing it. Principles such as exchanging ideas and shifts in relationships for more productive power dynamic (agency and empowerment) can have a big impact.

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