Social Innovation: under construction, but that’s the whole point.

social innovation.001-001Because it is mainly “humanly-driven”, social innovation offers a great view of how and in what innovation actually makes a greater sense when people are both its engine and its end-goal. Of course it all sounds very nice and the reality is a bit less shiny, as most initiatives are scarce and/or at early stage, but WAI wanted to outline how beneficial it is to go through the whole sometimes painful but always necessary process of creating innovation led by social goals and tools.

As Graham Dovers explains in following article, social innovation has been increasingly followed-up over the last ten years, yet there is still a need to better define the exact roles each one has to play, especially on the government side, to enable a better spread of social innovation. The article lists an exhaustive range of existing initiatives and examples around the world of how governments and entrepreneurs, start-ups, have already positioned themselves, and draws a very good picture of the external factors that will accelerate social innovation in the near future: costs savings and financing, emergence of technologies enabling global platforms and hubs, governments and companies embracing social innovation as a trend, and ultimately helping to develop innovation tools and systems that adapt to each different culture and society. As an example, Dell has launched a social innovation challenge, the Verb U community, aimed at promoting social projects for sectors as diverse as health, technology, human rights. One of them, ESSMART, gives “rural retail shop owners access to products that improve their customer’s life”. All projects are supported and/or financed by Dell through specific awards.

This is where we can start seeing how social innovation makes a major difference with standard innovation as ran in most companies today. It is primarily meant to answer a specific need creating a community of virtual suppliers and enabling a real human issue to be solved globally. Hence the rise of a number of hubs all around the world, such as the social innovation centre in Canada, and the social innovation exchange (SIX) group in Europe. They both offer physical places and virtual tools so people can meet and create social innovation projects that are connected on a single platform. There are also private initiatives such as the application launched by Entirely which aims at “helping people share ideas with a community who come together to form teams, explore ideas and share them with the world”. We can also mention the Benisi network which aims at promoting and actively develop European focused social innovation projets. But it’s not just about offering tools, space and communities, it is also about empowering people to create innovation that serves these communities. This is why Georgetown University has recently opened a specific course on social innovation in their new Beeck Center for Social Innovation & Impact to specifically teach how to generate, drive and foster innovation that has a social impact.

Governments, private and public sector, universities, technology, ideas, people, it’s all out there and being put together. The economic downturn and even the technological gaps will in the short to mid term highlight the need for more social innovation, as for example in France, many rural areas still lack a real technology development programme, which will give even more reasons for people to take power and initiate their own innovation projects to drive local change, generating specific requirements for their towns, regions to develop adequate technological tools. And that’s the whole point: in the end, social innovation is driving change that is both empowered and targeted at a specific group with a specific need, which defines the technological, social, financial, environmental and perhaps even legal structure it requires to be developed in the most adequate way. This is the reason why Hitachi Europe and Forst & Sullivan have held the first Social Innovation Forum in Istanbul last February, to bring together companies and NGO and think as a group about how “smart technologies can deliver innovation that answer societies’ change”. This initiative is even more interesting taking into account the recent access ban in Turkey for Twitter services.

Social innovation reflects what innovation should be delivering today in many companies and sectors. It is built on a wide variety of projects that answer a wide variety of needs, and a need to share ideas and tools to answer those needs in the most efficient way. It does look like a bottom-up innovation wave paving the way to strategic changes, and that’s the whole point. By showing how complex but necessary those initiatives are, social innovation highlights the critical need to learn from others in order to build for others, which is the social change that will help build societies better connected to their virtual and physical environment, inclined to change because they know why they have to and create the tools to do so.

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