Planet earth is slowly dying, millions of people are being forced to flee their homes, the human race is the loneliest (and the fattest) it has ever been in recorded history and citizens in nation states are becoming increasingly divided and pitted against one another. These are just a few of the social problem we are facing today, the ‘tip’ of a rapidly melting iceberg.
Given the horrors of our current reality, it wouldn’t be surprising if all most of us wanted to do was to huddle up in ‘child’s pose’ and rock back and forth on our highly mortgaged lounge room floors.
Thankfully, at such a pivotal time in the human race humanity is showing its true strength and resilience and it is indeed fighting back. All around the world, people from different backgrounds, of various ages, and from completely diverse walks of life are putting their heads together to brainstorm innovative solutions to tackle these social problems. As a result, they are coming up with new and improved responses to such societal needs.
Using innovative thinking to solve social problems is commonly known as social innovation. It concerns the process of developing and deploying new effective solutions to address often systemic social and environmental issues and challenges. Despite there being no universally accepted definition of social innovation, it is widely accepted to be about ‘ideas that are social in their ends and in their means’ and these ‘ideas’ can take various forms and may include products, services, processes or organisational models.
What is social innovation?
Ironically given the widely held stereotypes about innovation being synonymous with invention, Social Innovation is not a completely new phenomenon. Despite it gaining popularity and prominence as a term over the last decade, the act of applying new ideas, services or ways of thinking to solve social problems features prominently in history.
The use of penicillin to treat wounded soldiers in WWII, for example, was an innovative solution which made a major difference in the number of deaths and amputations caused by infected wounds, but the invention itself originated from years of hard work by various individuals mixed with a stroke of luck and then a change in the field of application.
Throughout history the fundamentals of social innovation has stayed the same, being about connecting people, ideas and resources, and leveraging a shared intelligence and diverse perspectives, however our understanding of the value has potentially increased, and our approaches to implementing social innovation thinking has sophisticated.
How to implement innovative solutions
So how exactly can you use innovative solutions to solve social problems, either as an individual, as an organisation, in your workplace, home, local community or global community?
There are many ways in which you can learn more about social innovation and the various approaches is includes in order to adopt them. Undertaking formal tertiary studies, including the Bachelor of Applied Entrepreneurship, offers the opportunity to learn fundamental concepts of innovation, as well as undertake subjects which explore unique strategies including social activism and corporate social responsibility.
Thankfully, due to the recent rise in popularity of the concept of social innovation as a result of its new-founded validation, a range of organisations are also taking on board innovative approaches to service and product design and sharing their learnings with the general public. The Australian Centre for Social Innovation is a national centre dedicated to helping create better lives by shifting systems, demonstrating what is possible with different thinking, and developing replicable approaches to social innovation. They are also working to move social innovation from the margins to a national priority and building the understanding of individuals and organisation of the new ideas, tools and mindsets needed for innovation.
The Australian Red Cross’s Problem Solver’s Toolkit is a suite of best practice tools and methods available to the general public for free, which has been designed to help individuals and organisations understand the people they are designing for and the problems they are working on solving. It does this by utilising a process which involves three main stages; explore, validate and deliver. The ‘explore’ stage discusses the importance of accurately defining your chosen problem, challenge or opportunity, understanding its scope and the context, developing a clear hypothesis of the change and embarking on a process of ideation. The ‘validate’ stage then discusses how you test and validate assumptions about your users and problem, and test your chosen solution(s), aiming to build ‘lean’, low-effort, high value versions of it.
Finally, the ‘deliver’ stage covers things like planning and resourcing to fund, build, scale, promote and improve your product and service, executing and, incorporating continuous improvement and Agile techniques to ensure a process of continuous learning. Also, if you are not quite sure what concepts like ‘human-centred design’, ‘co-design’, ‘agile’, ‘lean’ and ‘value proposition design’ are, then be sure to check out the context card of this toolkit which talks you through these.
Looking at social innovation overseas
We can also look internationally where in Europe, for example, many organisations also exist that are working on promoting social innovation and have produced high quality publicly available resources. This Social Innovation Toolkit, created by the European Commission Social Innovation Competition, which covers the essential building blocks of building a social venture including framing a problem, prototyping, revenue generation, stakeholder engagement and communications, sustainability and impact measurement.
This toolkit takes a slightly different approach, leading a journey through problem definition and ideation all the way through to scaling. It also covers the essential building blocks of building a social venture, covering issues such as framing a problem, prototyping, revenue generation, stakeholder engagement and communications, sustainability and impact measurement.
At the end of the day, the reality is that innovation is often messy, unpredictable and risky, and the ‘high stakes’ involved in social innovation make it even more so. However the range of information and resources now available to us to help navigate this is playing a valuable role in helping people and organisations use innovative thinking to solve social problems, making the world a better place one step at a time.