Social innovation has several meanings and definitions. However, the term can be defined as a unique solution to a social problem that is efficient, sustainable and just to the common good of the public. Also social innovation can simply refer to novel ideas that solve existing cultural, economic, social and environmental challenges for the benefit of humanity and future generations. In essence a social innovation should revamp and revolutionize the existing order and influence behavior change, perception and structural changes all for public good.
The term social innovation was coined after the inadequacies of the two popular rallying points, social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, to fully create and spur social change in its manifestations. Critics argue that the term social innovation is more encompassing and a better suited vehicle to communicate social change.
This is because social innovations can be created by individuals, organization or groups; they also fall into various categories ranging from non-profit, profit driven and public sector controlled. However, recent trends show that they are also happening in between these different sectors to come up with more holistic ideas. This can be attributed to the fact that social change demands wide cross sector coordination, and not independent interventions of individual groups.
Due to the problem of lacking a clear definition it has several applications. For instance it can refer to development of social processes of innovation like crowd sourcing and online social networks. On the other hand it can refer to development of innovations with a social purpose, like distance learning and micro-credit. The term in other instances can refer to social entrepreneurship which entails innovation of affordable products and services that have positive impact on the society. Social innovation has also found its way in the academia, government and public policy, a clear indication of its cross cutting capabilities.
Given the dynamic nature of social innovation it completely revolutionized the way governments and businesses interrelate and the roles they play towards promoting social change. Traditionally governments played the antagonistic role of taxer and regulator, whereas the social change was solely left to businesses corporate relations department and non profit organizations. The trend has changed as there are more collaboration between businesses and government, and government and nonprofit organizations to foster social endeavors.
This pragmatic shift in relationship and roles can be credited to the success of some social innovations, like emission trading. Emission trading is one of the avenues of addressing climate change that decentralizes decisions about how and when to cut carbon emissions. The government is mandated to set a central authority that sets limits or caps of carbon emissions to different companies. In case a company reduces its carbon emission it can sell carbon credits to companies needing to pollute more. Nonprofit organizations are instrumental in the emission trading process as they provide technical assistance by monitoring and assessing the emission reduction rates of various companies. This symbiotic relationship between these different parties is the true hall mark of the success of emission trading as a social innovation.
A common feature of many social innovations is creation of new business models that serve the marginalized population in the society. The business models can either profit based or nonprofit but they must be sustainable in the long term. These business models are designed to have low cost structures, efficient delivery systems, and often blend non market and market approaches. These new business models are rife with tensions as a result of the numerous trade-offs they make. Nevertheless, they overcome many hindrances and barriers common with profit or nonprofit organizations when it comes with dealing with social needs and problems.
It is important to recognize the fact most social problems can’t be fully understood and solved without the three key players working in harmony. Social innovations blossom and grow whenever these sectors operate in harmony. It’s only through this that ideas can be exchanged freely, responsibilities and roles defined, and formation of public-private partnerships enhanced all geared towards social change.
The impact of social innovation on modern governance and leadership is more profound. It captures not only the end to a social problem but also the means to achieving this noble goal. Leaders and policy makers involved in creating social innovations need to look beyond the blinding facades of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship. The approach should be to broaden the scope as everyone is an agent of social change.