Features of social innovation
What are key features of social innovation?
It is quite obvious that innovations should be… innovative. They must offer something new, different from what we have known thus far. However, it is extremely rare that social innovation introduce something entirely new, a ‘world premiere’.
Even if the social innovator believes firmly to have invented something nobody has ever done before, it usually turns out after close examination that he/she has copied subconsciously or has been inspired by other solutions to a rather considerable degree. This, however, does not diminish the novelty of the innovation.
In our opinion an innovation exists when a given solution is applied in a new context, is modified or combined with other solutions in an unusual way.
This is because the novelty of social innovation is relative as it depends on the context.
Even an attempt to imitate a successful solution from another continent or environment will rarely turn out to be its exact copy. What seems obvious in one place may turn out to be a revolutionary change in another. For example, extensive public services in Scandinavia are part of everyday life for Swedes or Norwegians. However, their introduction in Poland would constitute a total innovation.
The context for innovation can also be the right timing. Some social activities have been carried out in the past and they have worked or fallen out of favour, to be ‘reinvented’ years later. We call them retro innovations.
Not every imaginable need that we would like to meet is a actual social need. Substantial number of what we call innovation does not address actual challenges of the present day, but rather quite trivial and often fabricated needs.
Thus, the first challenge the innovators face is to distinguish explicit, authentic and basic needs from wants and desires. Of course, it is difficult to develop strict criteria of what is a actual need or challenge, as they can be global or local. However, innovation should not be used to generate new needs, but to focus on the known social problems which must be dealt with urgently, such as public services and their access, co-operation, health or care requirements.
First and foremost – social purpose
For us social innovations include those where the social objective is primary and intentional rather than incidental. The social objective is superior to other possible goals, for example the inventor becoming famous or commercial success.
Of course, this does not exclude commercial application of a social innovation or the innovator benefiting from the innovation he/she has created. However, innovation created to achieve profits which also addresses an actual social challenge differs from an innovation that solves a social problem and, in addition, it is made available as a service or object to disseminate the solution and make it sustainable and independent.
The difference can be explained by using the example of Facebook. It has arguably achieved many of the characteristics of a social innovation: it has changed social life globally, it often helps a large group of people to rally around a cause, and its like/don’t like buttons make it easy to express simple emotions, support for or displeasure with a cause. Firstly, however, it was a purely commercial project from the very beginning. Secondly, it did not aimed at addressing a social problem, but only to satisfy the need for socializing with other people. All the rest was just a side effect.
An extremely important feature of a social innovation is its implementability. Although imagination is a very valuable quality in innovators which allows them to get out of usual thinking ruts, even the best concepts for change cannot be just fantastic theories.
An idea or seed of a solution becomes a social innovation only when put in practice.
What other characteristics may a social innovation have?
We think that features described above are necessary to consider an action, solution or service a social innovation. However, this does not mean that innovations cannot have other important features. The ones worth mentioning include:
Innovations that are emancipatory in nature, i.e. provide tools for users or communities to be applied independently, are considered particularly valuable. They do not require the owners of the ‘patent’ or a narrow group of product or service providers to be involved in their application, instead they are created with the people, by the people and for the people.
Innovation should identify operating methods that prove to be more effective than solutions used previously. The ratio of cost and effort put into launching an initiative and its results plays an important role.
The chance of an innovation becoming widespread (and its social impact) will be much higher if the solution saves money. However, the method for calculating savings is a separate issue. Cost reductions are often obvious, but in other cases one must see, for example, the price of an omission….
At the prototype stage, innovation results sometimes in excess costs, however, after the test stage innovators must necessarily ask themselves whether their innovation can get out of the laboratory and whether it stands a chance in the real world. Sustainability of social innovations is verified quite differently than that of commercial products, where the market provides a quick answer on the matter. Other rationale, e.g. dissemination of action patterns, organisation of services, inclusion in a public funding mechanism or whether objects that can be made on one’s own, applies to persistence and function of social innovations.
There are social innovations that work effectively on a small scale, in one place and one ‘copy’. However, we all agree that it is worth seeking and supporting especially those innovations that can achieve the greatest possible social impact. This is why we need not always, but most often, innovations that can be replicated and scaled up to achieve this impact.