By Marcus Coetzee, 20 February 2023.
Social innovation aims to find new and powerful ideas and approaches that can change the world. This is a worthy pursuit since we always need better ways of doing things. There are plenty of capable organisations that support social entrepreneurs to develop and refine their innovations.
However, it is very difficult to come up with a great solution to a social, economic and environmental problem that can work across contexts. Then even if you do, it is much more difficult to scale it. Social innovations that have been scaled successfully or sustained across generations have been fortunate. Their stars have aligned.
I often wonder about the amount of attention given to the innovations themselves, and how they are sometimes commodified and treated like something that can be catalogued, exchanged, celebrated and automatically put to use, and then copied and pasted everywhere. I wrote about how social innovation is not a magic pill but a process back in 2014 and dealt with the misconception that an innovation can be duplicated again and again and keep working.
Social innovations are not rare. There is no shortage of innovations in the third sector. Furthermore, old tried-and-tested innovations are often recycled and given new names – something I see a lot of, most recently with models of local economic development. Most of the charities and social enterprises that I know have an innovation at the heart of what they do, otherwise, they would not be able to achieve an impact with their limited resources. The problem is that people seem to have forgotten that social innovations like home-based care, food banks, community ownership, peer mentors and support groups etc are actually innovations because they have become so normalised.
Good ideas tend to be context-specific and work because of a unique mix of environmental factors. Unfortunately, this means that they must be adapted to work in other contexts. In addition, and most importantly, a social innovation is worth nothing without a capable organisation to implement it, a supportive and enabling environment, the right mix of funding, a large dose of perseverance and a measure of good luck. This is where the hard work comes in. I have seen too many social innovations fail because these factors were not present in sufficient quantities.
Developing a social innovation is but a fraction of the entire process or journey, possibly less than one-tenth. The remainder is about implementation.
My point is simple. A boring innovation that fits your local context and is properly implemented will significantly outperform an award-winning innovation that is poorly implemented. Social innovation is not a miraculous solution but rather a key ingredient in a more complex process, which is where we should focus our attention.