Cities, citizens and technologies: what makes social innovation intelligent?

The recurring theme of human centricity has gained traction towards the end of our latest loop. Although it has remained among the values and tools developed through our think l@b since very early posts of this blog, the technological developments scoped by this community have outlined another dimension of customer-centricity in the recent months. There are indeed a number of new technological systems and intelligence available to serve social goals. How could social innovation make the best of technology to concentrate on its human goals? 

As in many other systemic discussions, i.e. conversations that analyze the systemic dimensions of our developments, experts strongly disagree on the meaning for smart cities. Is being smart being technologically connected? Or is it the intelligence of engaged citizens, local talents and resources across a given ecosystem that makes cities smart? The digital and connected turn undertaken by socially oriented innovation initiatives encourage a number of sector transformations, showing how closely engaged businesses, citizens and local authorities can develop mutual value.

Innovation and the city

Beyond clichés and simplified visions of the rural world, journalists and experts are able to paint an accurate picture of what innovation is to cities, and what it is not. What can we do about those areas where the digital world is nothing but a distant bubble they may not even want to get involved in? Do they become ‘unintelligent’ areas on the principle that intelligent, smart cities, are those filled with technology… and people? Redefining the very sense of intelligence and smartness is one of the challenges social innovation may need to contribute to.

It is also a France where one is a salesperson for Patapain (bakery), where one builds stainless steel pipes or buckets for excavators, very far from French Tech, financial services and digital communication agencies. 

Lire plus: “De la France moche à la France morte?“, Jean-Laurent Cassely, Slate

The medieval city is intelligente because everything is useful and because it is based on basic principles of functional analysis. Collective knowledge systems enabled to discuss and select the most appropriate solution. 

Lire plus: “Géopolitique des villes intelligentes“, Claude Rochet interviewed by Jean François Fiorina, Notes Géopolitiques de Grenoble Ecole de Management

This may be a reason for French social innovation experts to call for an organized approach and support to develop further initiatives that create local ecosystems of human knowledge and links, beyond technologies. Cities like Lyons have seen such ecosystem spread and create intergenerational, inter sectorial, public-private partnerships to answer local needs. Such initiative being quite noticeably supported by local politics, and noticeably away from remote rural areas.

“A new suitable ecosystem is developed there, with an incredible diversity of projects that bring novel solutions to people’s needs, the birth of dedicated training within schools such as “ESCD 3A, the multiplication of pioneering coaching players (Ronalpia, Alter’Incub), the engagement of major companies who understood the emergency to localize their social and environmental policies, and the active willingness showed by local authorities to make social innovation a core lever of its economic development policy by 2021.” 

Lire plus: “En France, l’innovation social veut sa French Tech“, Romain Dichampt, WE Demain

Social as an ambition

The need to concentrate on human intelligence and capabilities inspires students to engage and promote engagement. By driving campaigns to communicate personal and generational drivers of civic engagement, they help understand the necessity to invite new ideas and generations to define a common vision of society. This in turn opens new career opportunities and business potentials.

Students at Princeton University and universities across the United States share their stories as part of #OurTomorrow, a national campaign illuminating the power we all have to create change through service and civic engagement.

Read more: “ #OurTomorrow connects students working for change“, Ryan Maguire, Princeton University

Social is the first employment sector of ESS (social, solidarity economy) and the one that counts the “highest retirement potential”. Among skills needed, home helping with 159,000 jobs created, far ahead of computing engineers (90 000 jobs), administration, accounting and finance (97,000 jobs). 

Lire Plus: “Emploi :  les secteurs qui recrutent en 2017“, Sarah Corbeel, Dossier 


Such social oriented careers find a crucial place in tensed political and economic environments. It is indeed the human links and shared intelligence that help rebuild or develop diverse communities, including refugees and foreigners. As much as startups can inspire horizontal breakthroughs for technology innovations, social innovation outlines the human benefits of concentrating efforts on personas beyond the end-users.

Here, they (refugees) will be able to create projects in line with who they are, and so feel more personally fulfilled, which will accelerate their integration. 

Lire plus: “Ici, on aide les réfugiés à créer leur entreprise“, Julien Duffré, Le Parisien

But this trend is far from being the only driver for social oriented careers. Social innovators intend to lead a career as rich and beneficial as any other career, and expect their experience to deliver the same degree of operational and leadership excellence. It is through personal interactions and human networks that they build clusters of solidarity and support to drive change in the most caring, engaging and innovative way.

What primarily motivates the majority of social entrepreneurs to get started is, unsurprisingly, the fact of being useful and creating change. But that is not all… They also live this adventure as a real professional opportunity. 

Lire plus: “6 idées reçues sur l’entrepreunariat social“, Julia lemarchand, Les Echos 

Another specific trait: the solidarity among social entrepreneurs. “We try and support others when they face difficulties”, as explains Stéphanie. Her cultural and social business is a member of Mouvement des entrepreneurs sociaux (Le Mouves) located in la Ruche Denfert, a collaborative coworking space. 

Lire plus: “Faut-il être extraordinaire pour créer une entreprise sociale?“, Pauline Bian-Gazeau, Say yess 

Looking for social talents

The impact of digitally connected joiners proves of relevant help to associations and organizations looking to refresh their approaches and ideas. As in any other business type, the opportunities brought by digital technologies need to be properly combined to human centric missions, and it takes a new approach to communication, development and results assessments, including for social innovation.

As Willem van Rijn, Greenpeace COO from 2009 to 2012, says, “The advent of these digital-first groups made us realise that relying on a business model with an institutional brand as the major voice behind the action was no longer viable.”

Read more: “Five years of building people power at Greenpeace“, Jed Miller and Cynthia Gibson, MobLab 

The benefit of measuring the adoption and function of products meant to improve people’s lives, rather than how well a product performs in a laboratory setting, is the difference between solving problems and wasting opportunities.

Read more: “Designing a way to measure the impact of design“, Cheryl Heller, Stanford Social Innovation Review


As a result, technologies and data get closely involved in the making of a new kind of civic engagement, interconnecting individuals, communities, major companies, universities and startups to address social issues that may have systemic and global consequences. Hence the necessity of smartly identifying and locating local and global actors through intelligent maps. Hence also the necessity to bring further human centricity behind technologically intensive and data rich social initiatives.

This easy-to-use visualization tool intends to “map” the impact investing ecosystem, and provide current and potential investors with a snapshot of what the market represents. It is searchable by geography, asset classes, and impact focus areas.

Read more: “Fueling the momentum of impact investing“, Jean Case, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Trials of Big Data for Social Good, focusing on epidemics, will start from June 2017 in Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Myanmar and Thailand.

Read more: “Big Data for Social Good initiative launched“, Innovators Mag 

Social innovation indeed drives a number of business-oriented decisions. Being locally engaged and caring for systemic impact has become a trust factor in the eyes of customers, giving birth to new certifications and marketing claims. In search of the right scale and approaches to develop their visibility, engaged entrepreneurs validate social innovation strategies as a core element of their success.

“In a context where consumers growing expect, in front of global companies, authentic and local products, players who stand by respectful values towards employment and the environment, the E+ certification is an appropriate answer and retailer brands have already understood this”, highlights Dominique Amirault, FEEF president.

Lire Plus: “60 entreprises labellisées “Entrepreneurs+engagés”“, Entreprendre 


Through Loop#2, we have identified a set of actions for global innovation communities driving intelligent change to partner with the digital crowd. The action derived from our latest “Social Innovation” article is displayed below:


Within their own knowledge communities, social innovation experts define the value of technological combined to human developments for local needs and ecosystems. This is how they consequently contribute to inspire intelligent change:

  • How do social innovators address core roots of social issues? They paint an accurate picture of local needs and realities to redefine “intelligence” for their cities
  • How do they “gamify” social innovation in cities? They redefine the rules of their careers while expecting the same level of excellence and developments in the social area, they create new social business certifications.
  • Why do they involve local citizens, businesses and authorities? They involve local talents to create cross-generations and cross-sector benefits for society and businesses organized in ecosystems. They also seek to attract digitally connected talents.
  • Who are these startups and local talents? They are associations, social entrepreneurs, students and innovation experts
  • When do they assess solutions by exploring them in daily life? They explore the results of their innovation by promoting sense of engagement and creating the tools to assess and re-use knowledge and results generated
  • Where do they implement local ideas that may generate systemic change? They implement change within ecosystems supported by local authorities, close to existing innovation and connected infrastructures. writes the innovation story that thousands of innovation experts around the world constantly develop and share on WAI social networks. Browse our knowledge library and read our management reports to learn more.

Photograph: Nirina Photography

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