It’s funny how cachet terms can become so common in industry and media circles that they start to lose their meaning. In my view this is at risk of happening in the conversation around ‘social innovation’. It seems like any program or piece of technology remotely related to improving peoples’ well-being can be labeled as socially innovative these days. Perhaps it’s because the term has never really been properly defined, and/or that people with an aim to advance social good are generally inclusive types (which is wonderful, by the way). Whatever the reasons, I think that failing to offer a substantive definition of social innovation is doing us a disservice as nonprofit managers and policy practitioners.
Chewing on this question for a while led me to wonder what ‘innovation’ really even means, so I looked it up. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines innovation thus: “the act or process of introducing new ideas, devices, or methods”. Hmm, seems pretty clear-cut. Just because you devise a new idea, though, does that mean you’re innovating? For example, a government department might invent a new social program that’s super expensive to run and produces mediocre outcomes (sadly not the realm of fiction). New? Absolutely…but not so innovative, methinks.
Maybe the private sector has a better handle on this innovation thing. A simple Google search reveals that business writers have explored the concept of innovation quite a bit. As the author of an Inc.com article says: “the challenge of defining innovation is finding a common denominator: attributes, functions, outcomes or other discernible differentiating characteristics.” Another commentator on Fast Company ventures that innovation is about ‘connecting the dots’, offering that “the single difference between the innovator and the ordinary person (is that) one saw the dots and connected them while others 1) didn’t see them or 2) if they did, they didn’t explore, question, or connect any of them.” That’s an interesting metaphor, but not one that I think is especially useful to the aspiring innovator. After all: if innovation is about connecting dots, how does one do that? What’s more, how does one measure it?
The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) provides a more workable definition: “social innovation refers to the creation, development, adoption, and integration of new concepts and practices that put people and the planet first.” I think this is a great starting point. From my background as a public policy practitioner in the federal government, I would suggest expanding the definition to include at least these four dimensions:
- Economy. How few resources (cash, materials, labour, etc) does the solution consume relative to its social benefit?
- Novelty. Is this truly a new way of doing things, or simply a repackaging an already well-worn approach?
- Effectiveness. How well does the solution tackle the social issue(s) at hand, relative to previously tried approaches?
- Disruptiveness. To what degree does the solution shake up the broader policy environment? Is it truly a ‘game changer’?
Of course each of these facets leaves plenty of room of interpretation and any attempt to measure them means making qualitative judgements about how we see economy, novelty, etc. Still, I believe there is strong merit in pursuing a more robust definition of social innovation and how to measure it. Such an expanded definition could, for example, promote a more rigorous and disciplined approach to social innovation projects by nonprofits. It might inspire greater confidence on the part of funders, and could ideally offer a more refined lens through which to evaluate the social innovativeness of ideas…and help flow resources to projects that rank highest on the scale.
Social innovation is an exciting and rapidly changing field. As CSI notes on its website: “definitions of social innovation abound and a casual observer can quickly become entangled in a debate over meaning and nuance.” I agree. However, that doesn’t mean that exploring ways we can deepen and measure the concept of social innovation is a bad idea. On the contrary: I think it’s an important step in enhancing our credibility as social changemakers and the maturity of the social innovation space as a whole.