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This article is written by my colleague Caroline Gertsch, Country Director at Amani Institute Kenya
“What exactly do you mean by social innovation?” “What does it look like in practice?” I often get asked these questions due to my work at Amani Institute. Pretty much everyone is familiar with the word ‘innovation’, but the minute you put the word ‘social’ in front of it, it becomes slightly confusing for many people.
Stanford University defines social innovation “as a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions. The value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals.”
So far the definition seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? However, there are three common misconceptions I keep encountering in discussions about social innovation.
The first one is about what it means to be novel or new. It doesn’t mean that the solution doesn’t exist yet anywhere in the world. This criteria is also fulfilled when it is new to the user (group), to the context where it is applied, or if there is a new aspect to its application. As a matter of fact, many social innovations take solutions that already exist in a different form and then adapt it to another context.
To illustrate this, let’s look at a well-known example of social innovation, microfinance. It wasn’t that banking itself was new at the time, but the fact that it was taken to a new user group – people who traditionally didn’t have access to banking services or credit – created new economic opportunities for many micro businesses. Enabling this access not only benefited the financial institutions, but also led to economic inclusion, which contributes to society as a whole.
I work in Nairobi, Kenya. Many are surprised to hear that it is a global hub of social innovation. It hosts a number of organisations that show us what social innovation looks like in practice. For example, take Sanergy, which creates access to affordable and hygienic sanitation for people living in urban slums. Or Tunapanda, which focuses on business and IT skills development for young people, using a unique operating pedagogy, open source tools, offline education networks, and more.
The second misconception revolves around the notion that social innovation only happens in NGOs and social enterprises. In fact, there are more and more examples of social innovation taking place in governments and the private sector. Take Swiss Re – a global re-insurer – who got two million smallholder farmers in Kenya insured against weather related risks by pioneering an index based insurance approach. These farmers would otherwise be particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.
The last common misconception – and sometimes a point of debate – is what constitutes “social value” and what does it take to fulfill that 3rd criteria of “the value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals”. First let me say that at Amani Institute we also consider solutions that create environmental value to fulfill this criterion. However, when our Social Innovation Management Fellows get asked whether Uber can be considered a social innovation, a heated debate usually ensues.
At this point, we take them back to the definition, because the crucial word here is “primarily”. There are many products or services that create social value as a by-product, but solving a social problem is not their primary intention. In this case it’s the intention that matters. However, since intention is not easily discerned from the outside, there will always be some room for debate around this point.
However, it’s important not to get hung up on a definition. Social innovation only produces value when innovative approaches and solutions actually come to life and don’t just remain at the idea stage. This happens when new products and services are launched, when processes or principles are redesigned, when technologies are deployed in a novel way, all with the same goal: to address the global challenges we face as a society, and as a planet.
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