Social innovation is basically the process of securing support for and implementing novel solutions to social needs and problems. The question is do we see a place for social innovation given the world’s new challenges – such as new markets in emerging nations and increasingly urban, interconnected and dangerous societies?
Further, the US has changed. America was built on manufacturing; now we are increasingly being built on ideas. To survive in an idea-based economy, we must innovate, and the very nature of innovation which formerly emerged from research spending and top-down guidance is evolving.
On a strategic level, innovation is rapidly evolving and today the world stands on the cusp of yet another shift—a postindustrial revolution.
We are entering an age in which the danger of highly unlikely but devastating events can no longer be ignored. We saw this on 9/11/01 where America suffered from a true “lack of imagination” and failed to comprehend the threat posed by 19 individuals armed with civilian aircraft heavily ladened with aviation fuel.
The world is undergoing an unprecedented demographic, economic, and environmental transformation today and there is a great race underway between the forces of development and those of degradation. The world is indeed becoming a more dangerous place. This creates both problems and opportunities for social innovators.
Across the globe, social innovators are focusing on and solving intractable issues including hunger, poverty, human trafficking and rights violations, disease, political corruption, and environmental destruction. But, social innovation is more than activism. The key to innovation and more particularly social innovation lies in leadership. This new breed of socially innovative leader is very adept at dissolving traditional boundaries and brokering a dialogue between divergent groups. And, these socially innovative leaders have the ability not only to make the world a safer place, but to truly put a large ding in our universe.
In much of the social innovation dialogue, it seems the concept of leadership is sadly absent. All innovation demands leadership; innovation is a leader’s life-blood. But, so often we don’t know how to institute innovation. Innovation must create visible and real value. Further it must be simple, sustainable, and scalable. It is a multifaceted undertaking. Embedding it in our organizations takes leadership with deliberate effort and—sadly—it cannot be integrated quickly.
There is an explosion in the application of business concepts, strategies, ideas, and practices in the military, non-profit, and non-governmental arenas along with building platforms that unleash human potential. There has also been an interesting rise in businesses taking up the cause of creating social value under the mantle of corporate social responsibility and corporate citizenship. Socially innovative leaders must create and maintain a field on which all of these organizations can engage, and this engagement—this leader, can indeed turn the tide of the dystopian world view above.
This is where I see a nexus of leadership and social innovation. This is where we take current ideas, concepts, and theories on leadership and cross them with these causes to build socially innovative leaders by design. We need to shift the focus from looking at the world’s problems to focusing on the world’s problem solvers.
We need to harness the power of cross-cultural and cross-generational leadership to solve social, environmental, and other strategic problems. By doing so organizations will find they develop products and reach customers they never imagined. Its all about the interconnectedness of people and ideas. In today’s open innovation ecosystems, one form of a leader’s intangible capital is the knowledge networks that link decentralized nodes of social innovation.
Social innovation follows certain principles. The key is to focus on the needs of people while not losing sight of the strategic picture. Change happens for a reason. Communication is crucial, culture matters, and everything must happen in context. Outstanding innovators take calculated risks and are not easily discouraged. Outstanding leaders create infectious energy around innovation—and as such the gears of socially innovative leadership begin to turn.
Furthermore, both an ecosystem and strong advocacy must exist in an organizational system to promote the free flow of information. Successful innovation often requires aggressive experimentation and leaves many failures in its wake—which is tough for many organizations to digest. One of the underpinnings of innovation is making context, the strategic picture, explicit for individuals and the organization as a whole.
Changing a culture is not as simple as conducting training sessions or putting a bunch of cool posters on the wall. Innovation requires trust and collaboration because no idea can flourish without a true team effort guided by leaders with incredible vision.
These socially innovative leaders are amazing at connecting the dots between vision and the ideas that will enable the vision.
The focal point of social innovation is the the greater good, whether internal or external. There is a good deal of passion in the social innovation sphere, but we need to add a strong dose of leadership to the passion all the while realizing that passion and leadership are the key drivers to social innovation. A business entrepreneur’s goal is to create profit, while a socially innovative leader wants to improve society. Many times an organization can do both with the right leaders and the right vision.
The most valuable commodity in the universe is leadership, and leadership is influence. Without influence social innovation is impossible. You can’t buy leadership, you can’t trade it—we simply have to develop and grow it in order to improve our global environment—just a thought.
A few Wikipedia examples of social Innovation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_entrepreneurship#Case_studies