“We cannot solve the problem with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

When tackling problems that cannot be easily solved by using conventional ways of problem solving, innovation gets into the center. What Albert Einstein is, in fact, referring to in the quote above is the necessity for innovative solutions.

Much of what we have nowadays has been accomplished through social innovation. If we take a look back into the nineteenth century, we can already witness the presence of mutual self-help, micro-credit, cooperatives, trade unions, reading clubs, etc. These above mentioned institutions are only a few examples out of many.

However, social innovation, which refers to new ideas that meet unmet needs, is a complex process. For example, one can come up with a great invention that could potentially aim at tackling some issues and yet, unless this new idea is not carried out into a real life case and practice, it cannot be seen as innovation. Given that the implementation is a crucial aspect of innovation in general, there are also some other important aspects essential to the realization of social innovation.

For example, novelty and improvement are two basic principles that comprise social innovation. In other words, any innovation must be new to the user and more effective than preexisting alternatives.

“Some of the most effective methods for cultivating social innovation start from the presumption that people are competent interpreters of their own lives and competent solvers of their own problems.”

Geoff Mulgan

Note that besides novelty and improvement, what also seems vital in the process of innovation is the involvement of beneficiaries. The case of Aravind’s – Eye Care System in India is one of the examples illustrating the way beneficiaries become involved in the process of social innovation. To empower local women and hence use recourses at hand, the organization employs and trains local women to become nurses and take part in fulfilling organization’s mission to eradicate needless blindness in India. Hence, the involvement of beneficiaries can be seen as an effective method for initiating social innovation.

Is more innovation better?

In relation to the definition of social innovation and ways it works, long-term studies have identified that many assumptions, which we take for granted regarding innovations might be misleading. Here are three to mention:

First, there is a prevailing tendency to overrate the value of innovation. Thereby, during this process value created by incremental improvements of the routine activities is getting sidelined.

“Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll.”

Keith Richards

As a result, pushing innovation instead of strengthening more routine activities can sometimes lead to destruction rather than creation of value. This may be due to specific contexts as some poverty related issues might need long-term engagement enabling less risky progress instead of innovative solutions.

Second, there are many cases when an evaluation of innovation is primarily based on its outcomes in relation to an external impact, forgetting a value of learning from failed innovation. In fact, learning from failed innovations can prove helpful when trying to understanding ways of how particular contexts might influence the translation of innovations to a different environment.

Third, there is a tendency for underappreciating the difficulty of innovation by searching for the critical success factors that could spark more innovation. However, it is important to understand the differences in innovation processes and consider influencing factors including outcomes across different cultures and geographies.

Mantra of social innovation

So, what is social innovation? The mechanisms of social innovation can be thought of as having four stages. These reflect in the identification of the need or social problem, taking and testing the idea in practice, scaling it up and continuing to learn and adopt. In conclusion, it is essential to identify, test, scale up and learn.