What is 'social' innovation?

Social innovation – as both a term and approach – has gained more popularity recently. But what does it actually mean and is it just another buzz word?

According to leading UK-based Innovation Foundation Nesta –  ‘social innovation is about developing new ideas to tackle social problems or meet social needs’. That could be a new product, service, initiative, business model or approach to the delivery of public services. Adding to that Stanford University’s Center for Social Innovation suggests that, social innovation is novel solutions to social problems – more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions – the value of which accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals.

Put simply, social innovation is innovation for social impact. While the term may reek of hype – the practice of social innovation continues to pervade business and personal contexts and has become part of the mainstream approach to solving complex global problems.

Social innovation – in comparison to social entrepreneurship and social enterprise – is centred on solutions that create social value, as well as the processes through which they are generated. Social enterprise tends to focus on individuals and organisations, which limits the potential for broader social change. ‘Socially responsible business’, which is an attempt to revive the generally uninspiring notion of corporate social responsibility, encompasses innovative, ethical and community-minded business practices, but again focuses on individual or corporate gain.

By virtue of its’ collaborative nature, social innovation enables and facilitates the exchange of ideas, breaks down hierarchy, increases information sharing, and integrates stakeholders across the nonprofit, public and private sectors. Trends and semantics aside, innovation that focuses on the benefit of society as whole and creates value for everyone merits more attention.

Interested to learn more? Here are some useful articles:

Social Frontiers: does social innovation need better definition?

Rediscovering Social Innovation 

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