2016: The Year of Social Innovation Action

By Jocelyne Daw



Just before Christmas I had the pleasure of meeting with a student studying social innovation.   Social innovation is a hot topic and our discussion was wide-ranging as we shared insights and ideas. We agreed that social innovation was relevant to all sectors – from nonprofit to business to government. But one issue puzzled us both. While there were lots of social innovation activities – labs, meet-ups, hackathons, networking, conferences, social innovation spaces, research and dialogue – what seemed to be missing was widespread action. Social innovations are new solutions (products, services, models, markets, processes etc.) that simultaneously meet a social need, more effectively than existing solutions and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources. In other words, social innovations are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act. [i] The phenomenal surge of interest in social innovation has been driven by proof it can help address some of the most intractable social and environmental problems.So what will drive the advancement of social innovation initiatives? What new approaches are needed for organizations to advance this important

Driving Social Innovation: 2016 Push and Pull Trends 

As we look at the year ahead, we predict 2016 will be a turning point for social innovation initiatives. Change takes time, but local, national and global push and pull drivers will demand action.

  • Decreased resources from all sectors require organizations to find new solutions to social problems that are more effective, efficient and sustainable than current approaches.

  • Decreased patience with old ways of working and a desire to use new approaches to address systemic issues.

  • Increased social innovation activities and learning events have set up an enabling environment for social innovation breakthroughs.

  • Increased technologies and data applications are making it easier and more cost-effective to drive social system in the direction of greater value.

  • Increased societal focus on large-scale problems, illustrated by the fall 2015 launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, has generated greater interest and willingness to design creative social solutions.

Delivering Breakthroughs: Three Organizational Shifts

But push and pull factors alone will not drive change. Organizations will have to shift their approach to this work. Leaders, from all sectors, must embrace Social Innovation and proactively work to design and implement positive social change initiatives. To drive social innovation forward three organizational shifts will be needed:



#1. Intentionality: From activities to action

Trailblazing organization will move social innovation from a series of activities to intentionally driving action. Social innovation doesn’t just happen ideas are not solutions. It requires intentionality and dedicated resources. We are seeing glimpses of change.2016 will be the year progressive organizations initiate, undertake or support meaningful social transformation. This year, forward-thinking organizations will step up, in greater numbers, to the challenge of creating real, meaningful change in the civic arena.  What could this look like?

  • Large NGOs and international agencies are not traditionally recognized for playing a significant role in driving social innovation, however over the past few years that has changed. In Calgary, for example we have seen the United Way play a leadership role in hiring a Director, Innovation and catalyzing social innovation initiatives such as “All In For Youth”, a multi-sector partnership focused on high school completion.As former Director, Janice Iverson explained, “Four years ago, the Executive Team at United Way dedicated a Director level position to help foster a spirit of innovation inside and amongst our community partners. Having the opportunity to seek, champion, model, translate and action innovative practice has contributed to our organization’s change management goals, and its ambition to lead in being a catalyst for social change.”In 2016, we expect to see more large nonprofit organizations put resources, including hiring for Social Innovation positions, in order to support a healthy environment for social innovation action.

  • Business leaders recognize that social and environmental problems present significant limitations to their operations but also are opportunities for growth and competitive advantage. They have made efforts to support community social and environmental issues through traditional philanthropic and community investment initiatives. Results have not always matched dollars spent.A growing number of prominent businesses have hired Social Innovation positions (Suncor and RBC are great examples) and are championing a new way to invest a variety of resources in community to drive social innovation and business value beyond the traditional approaches. As Lori Gammell, who leads social innovation for Suncor states, "We’ve found that we can amplify the impact of our investments in community by working with partners and employees in deeper ways. These are long term commitments and get to the heart of what is of greatest value to the communities and partners we work with, as well as for the company, creating shared value and meaningful, lasting change in the process. We are feeling the positive effects of this approach externally and internally.

  • Governments, strapped for cash, face even more deep-rooted social and environmental issue. They realize that the old paradigm of government grants is not only inadequate but given budget deficits, not viable financially. To address this, social innovation is top of the agenda across a number of departments and while Alberta's Social Innovation Endowment Fund was eliminated from the 2014 budget, it still has its champions and drivers.

#2. Partnerships: From silos to boundary spanning collaborations



Social innovation provides a unique opportunity to step back from a narrow way of thinking about the role of government, nonprofit and business philanthropy. Social innovation recognizes the interconnectedness of various factors and stakeholders and the need for new paradigms of partnership and collaboration.And while we have a multitude of charitable organizations, most are not sustainable and on their own do not have the capacity and resources to address our significant social and environmental issues. Solving social challenges using the same approach will not net us the solutions that are critical to our shared future.  Socials innovations cut across organizational, sector, and even disciplinary boundaries and be driven by new approaches to resource development and social power structures.  These types of partnerships will be key to reshaping our cities and societies. 



#3. Roadmap: From experimentation to a social innovation roadmap 

Many organizations understand the value of social innovation but are struggling to implement social innovation initiatives. We have been working on and studying social innovation since the founding of JS Daw & Associates in 2009. We have observed patterns, common principles and tactics for success based on our own work, research interviews and from leading examples from around the world. We have found that organizations consistently rely on four mutually reinforcing elements, whose optimal form and balance rely on the organization’s culture, context and strategy.These four principles take ideas from inception to impact. While they are not always perfectly sequential and there are feedback loops between them, they provide a useful framework for thinking about the process that innovators and innovations need in order to begin and grow. We introduce these principles but will explore them in more detail in our next blog.

  • Define a social purpose goal based on strengths, assets and opportunities and social needs

  • Develop performance driven action by determining leverage points for positive social change and developing measures for success

  • Co-create and co-manage the social innovation initiative working with the right partners who bring value, resources and commitment and ensure optimal governance and innovation structure

  • Engage and leverage internal and externalstakeholders for added support and value and to build a community movement

Undertaking these three shifts will result in organizations integrating social innovation, not as add-on incremental programs, but as part of their core strategy and integral to their culture. Trailblazing organizations, from whatever sector, will redefine the standard of community leadership and social change in the process.

Next blog: Cracking the Social Innovation Code – A Roadmap for Success

[i] Definition from TEPSIE, a research collaboration between six European institutions aimed at understanding the theoretical, empirical and policy foundations for developing the field of social innovation.