Top trends in Social Innovation
Updated: Mar 3, 2019
James Phills Jr. and colleagues at Stanford Graduate Business School defines social innovation as, “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”
All things data
The data revolution has established influence pervasively across numerous industries; the realm of social innovation has been no exception. Although it is tempting to brush off such excitement as being inflated, the role of data in contemporary society is difficult to overstate. One study conducted by Catalist, surveying 150 experts on corporate social responsibility, found overwhelming agreement on the growing importance of data in the social impact space. Steve MacLaughlin, author of “Data Driven Non-profits,” asserts that, “we’ll see the continued convergence of data, insights and analytics to drive improved decision-making.”
Dasra, the Indian non-profit, points to the paucity of evidence and reliable data to make better decisions as one of the chief hurdles of social innovation in India. For non-profits and civil society groups – some notoriously slow to adopt technologies (although this is changing) – Lucy Bernholz of Stanford has articulated that the social impact industry would do well to rid itself of its techno-aversion if it wishes to reap the benefits of increasingly accessible and democratized data.
At its core, the expansion of data-driven modes of operation enable organisations to introduce scale at lower costs than would otherwise be impractical. For instance, insights gleaned from acquired data allow social enterprises to answer questions like, “Who is supporting my cause?” and “What kinds of campaigns are most effective?” More information should be viewed as potential for enhancing our understanding of the social world.
The advantages of greater information are neither axiomatic nor inevitable. Rather, the process comes with its own set of governance challenges; indeed, Bernholz correctly goes on to elucidate in her piece that “poorly managed data can make communities more vulnerable.” After all, information in itself is static. It is the ability of civil society organisations to interpret the data and its significance in meaningful ways that is key.
2. Interdisciplinary collaborations
For Frost & Sullivan, one of the most promising and central elements of social innovation is the idea of convergence, which involves the intersection of technologies, industries, products and business models by disparate stakeholders to arrive at optimal solutions. A report by the European Commission, “Vision and Trends of Social Innovation for Europe,” relayed similar findings, worth quoting in full:
“Social innovation to increase capabilities and wellbeing is not only a project for the public sector, and our research finds interesting initiatives emerging from the private and third sectors. As highlighted in our interview with Cynthia Hansen (Adecco) system change for capabilities and wellbeing requires a cross-sector approach: “to reinforce system change at corporate level and system level, it can’t be corporations operating on their own in isolation.
Corporations need funding, support, subsidies to drive this change. We also need market research into who are other players, what partnerships can we build, get the right people around the table, government, civil society, not in isolation: endorsing existing structures and bilateral lobbying.”
The Dahej desalination plant is one instance of successful public-private partnership, not only in India but also between international linkages (Singapore and Japan), to support industrial growth and urban development in India.
The collaborative spirit is not limited to the public/private sector dichotomy. Having found wider audiences with the expanded reach of the online community, crowdfunding and crowdsourcing are quickly becoming popular instruments of engagement. Digital platforms propping up a broader base for public engagement mean that many more social programmes today are integrating voices that have formerly been neglected. In a world characterized by unfathomable complexity, collaborative efforts and cross-pollination of ideas are perhaps our best bet at tackling global challenges.
3. Enter Generation Z: increasing social awareness and the willingness to take action
It is no secret that there is a growing desire to do social good and commitment to activism. There is abundant evidence to suggest this is the case and while sources feature marginally different figures, the takeaway is clear. “90% of MBAs from business schools in Europe and North America prefer working for organisations committed to social responsibility,” reveals a Stanford Business School study. Meanwhile, the Millennial Impact in “A Year in Review: An Invigorated Generation for Causes and Social Issues,” finds that “97 percent if millennials want to apply their specific work skills to volunteering.”
It has also been found that “87% of Americans would purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about and more than two-thirds will refuse to do so upon learning the company supported an issue contrary to their beliefs.” .” As DEFY Media puts it, “Young people not only want to see social responsibility in the companies they follow, they demand it.” Consumers are concerned now more than ever with issues of organisational practices and transparency. Naturally, businesses are taking notice, bringing us to our final point.
4. Changing institutional structures: updating models for Corporate Social Responsibility
Acknowledging the changing tide of consumer attitudes has pushed corporations to augment their campaigns and operations to be more aligned with human-centred principles. Indeed, across many areas of social concern (sustainability, women’s empowerment, inclusivity, to name a few), firms have created initiatives, joined coalitions, and reinvigorated corporate social responsibility.
In the same bucket is the increasing use of novel financial instruments such as impact bonds (impact investing), microfinancing, and participatory grantmaking.