Social Innovation – New Ideas that Meet Unmet Needs


Is more innovation needed in the social sector? Or is it better to play it safe and not take any risks?

Innovation carry risks and how risky an innovation proves to be depends partly on the choices people make in using  new ideas or products. A great example of how the choices we make influence the outcome of an innovation can be seen in the statistics related to snowstorms and four-wheel drives. A four-wheel drive should make your journey safer when you are driving on snow. Yet accident statistics suggest that this is not the case and the use of four-wheel drives has not led to any major changes in the rate of accidents. Why? The technology has led many of us to feel protected and this has meant that we are a bit overconfident when driving on snow. Awareness of the risks involved in driving a four-wheel vehicle on snow means that we can make conscious decisions about our driving, which in turn may lead to fewer accidents. Thus a straightforward analysis of accident statistics may not provide an accurate picture of the effectiveness of four-wheel drives.

In a similar way, innovation in the social sector involves many risks and unless everyone involved is aware of how the innovation should be used, there is a high risk of lack of progress.

Social innovations are new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations.

(Open Book of Social Innovation, Murray, Calulier-Grice and Mulgan, March 2010)

Today many organisations may feel pushed to innovate, yet funders are often frustrated by the lack of progress. Innovation in the social sector is difficult. A problem is that it may take years for an innovation to be implemented and evaluated. This means that innovation in the social sector is a costly and time-consuming process. An approach  towards innovation that involves less risks is to improve upon  existing services that the organisation have to offer. Thus, social innovations can take the form of genuine innovations or of improved solutions.

An idea is rarely a finished product and adjustments may be necessary and problems need to be analysed.  Thus, funders and everyone involved need to be aware of the importance of improving upon an innovation. Instead of  using the same performance measurement system for different types of innovations, it may be better to be more flexible and experiment. After a while, a more stringent testing criteria can be used to evaluate the innovation.

Innovation in the social sector should have a long-term impact and solve problems. But social innovations are not necessarily easy to widely adopt. In contrast, product innovations aims towards gaining market shares and there is usually an identifiable market. As an example of social innovation that tries to tackle a modern problem, we can look at Good Gym works in the UK. This social innovation tries to tackle three challenges.

  • the increasing isolation of elderly people,
  • the difficulty in finding volunteers to work with these groups,
  • the challenges that ordinary people may face in getting physically fit.

dont waste your energy_0

In the UK, 13 per cent of elderly people  say they always or often feel lonely.  The Good Gym connects “runners” with “coaches.” Runners are people who need additional motivation to be physically active, while the coaches are less mobile people over 65. The runners commit to jog to their coach’s house once per week to deliver something nice. A nice surprise could be a newspaper or a price of fruit. The runner chat with the coach and then run back home.  Thus the idea is to

  • provide a reason for people to run
  • to provide lonely people with company.

Measuring the outcome of an innovation like Good Gym, is difficult. Both short-term health aspects need to be considered but also broader effects such as building stronger communities. and improving cross-generational communication. Thus, one approach towards social innovation is to bring together groups of people with different  unmet needs. At first glance, the unmet needs of people who lack motivation to be psychically active and  elderly lonely people may seem like difficult to combine, yet to make new connections is the beauty of innovation.

n its essence, social innovation simply refers to new approaches and tools for solving societal challenges. It is not simply the repackaging of old ideas. We’ve learned a lot over the past decade about what works and what doesn’t in global health, development, education, sustainability, and many other challenging areas. We’ve learned how to design and deploy interventions. We can now have a strong perspective on which interventions have the potential to truly alter the course of a deadly infectious disease or move millions of young people out of debilitating poverty, based on the evidence of actual outcomes. We believe that the very best social innovations can transform our communities with new approaches to the complex challenges of the 21st century.

However, achieving that kind of impact requires yet another step. Unless a program can be replicated and sustained on a large scale, it will not be transformational. Identifying and scaling our best solutions has become the sector’s most important challenge. To meet that challenge, we can no longer evaluate programs simply based on how well they’ve performed in a given locality. Instead, we need to factor in their potential to achieve scale. We need to channel resources to the solutions that can produce the most good for the most people. As Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has pointed out, “Solutions to many of the world’s most difficult social problems don’t need to be invented, they need only to be found, funded, and scaled.”

It is incumbent on all of us to understand and vigorously address the barriers that prevent great ideas from turning into transformational changes. Unlike in the private sector, where successful product innovations have a clear process for gaining market share, the best social innovations are not necessarily widely adopted. The “iPods”of poverty alleviation and literacy have likely been invented and put to use by small organizations in some corner of the globe, but there is no market for identifying these breakthrough ideas and ensuring widespread adoption.

Additionally, the private-sector model of mergers and acquisitions, which leads to consolidation and ever increasing efficiency, rarely occurs in the social sector, where organizations with similar missions often find themselves pitted against one another in the competition for funds. Philanthropic funding mechanisms, with their short funding cycles, restricted project grants, and focus on new, rather than proven programs, have not always led to scaling the best social innovations. Besides organizational and financial barriers, there is often a tension between bringing social innovations to scale and ensuring that programs address the needs of local constituents.

Social innovators recognize these barriers and are working to overcome them. Our research points to four major opportunities that support our belief in the power of social innovation and provide insight into the path forward to scaling the most promising solutions:

1. Technology innovation: There has been rapid development of products that can improve the quality of life and health of the huge percentage of the world living in poverty. Water filtration systems and mosquito nets, for example, have improved health outcomes in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Compared with other social innovations that involve place-based social mobilization models, technology platforms designed for bottom-of-the-pyramid markets often scale remarkably well.

2. Geopolitical shifts: Rapid economic development in some regions and countries, including India, China, and Brazil, is bringing new resources and perspectives to social innovation at massive scale. China, for example, has moved the largest number of people out of poverty in the shortest period of time, in history. Tapping into the development lessons, increased resources, and powerful capabilities these countries are generating provides new and different fuel to the social innovation engine as well as useful insight into what could be effective elsewhere.

3. Cross-sector collaboration: We have moved beyond community solutions provided by churches, extended families, and government, to transformative innovations created through public, private, and nonprofit collaborations, including new vaccines and diagnostics, new funding mechanisms such as social impact bonds, and new educational initiatives. Many collaborative approaches take advantage of economies of scale and market mechanisms to use resources more efficiently to produce positive outcomes at greater scale.

4. Knowledge sharing: In addition to creating partnerships, increased knowledge sharing between organizations and across sectors is helping to identify the most promising solutions. For the past several decades, the social sector has been developing the capacity to evaluate and measure the impact of programs. This work provides the building blocks for the next phase of progress, in which social innovators will be able to harvest the knowledge about what works that is currently distributed across the globe in organizations large and small.

While these trends point to a tremendous flourishing of social innovation, the work of the next generation of social innovators will be to identify the ideas that produce results and ensure that limited resources are used to spread the best solutions. Imagine the impact that could be achieved if all the effort invested in addressing social problems was channeled to the widespread expansion of the most powerful programs. Bringing the best interventions to the people who need them most at a scale proportional to the size of the global problems we face is the major challenge facing the social sector, and perhaps the world.

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Photo: “Human Head With Social Network Icons” by KROMKRATHOG


One Reply to “Social Innovation – New Ideas that Meet Unmet Needs”

  1. The Nursing Home That’s Also a Dorm

    More retirement and nursing homes are asking college students to move in, an arrangement that benefits everyone.

    On his way home from class, Jurriën Mentink takes a slight detour to pick up some fresh fillets from the fishmonger. His neighbour has an affinity for fish and, since he cycles by the market anyway, it’s really no trouble.

    After paying, he hops back on his bike and heads home. He’ll visit his neighbour, have dinner, maybe do some studying or kick back to watch TV. Much like any other university student.

    Except home is a nursing home. And his neighbour just turned 93.

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