Social Innovation

The term ‘social innovation’, once rarely heard, is now often used to describe a whole variety of things that fall into general categories of being both new and good. It’s understandable that the phrase has become popular – we get excited and hopeful when it seems possible for real change to happen in the world.

On the other hand, when we call any change ‘social innovation’, it gives the false impression that all social change is pretty much the same with the same capacity for impact. And that makes it harder to remember that change comes in many forms, at many different levels of society; that some change happens at the individual level, some involves groups or organizations and then some gets at the really tough places – into areas like our beliefs, our habits, our laws, our economy.

Real innovation in social systems requires that change happen across these different levels or scales so that impact is strong and lasting; so that something that seemed impossible to change in the world becomes very different.

This is the definition for social innovation that the SiG national partnership uses to keep a focus on significant changes, across scales; those changes that get at the root causes of tough problems and that can really tip a social system in positive directions.

“In the context of changing the system dynamics that created the problem in the first place, a social innovation is any initiative (product, process, program, project, policy or platform) that challenges and, over time, contributes to changing the defining routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of the broader social system in which it is introduced.

Successful social innovations reduce vulnerability and enhance resilience. They have durability, scale and transformative impact.” Frances Westley

We are living at a point in history when the need and desire for change is profound…It is a pivotal time. Over the past two hundred years, human society has developed exceptional ingenuities, proficiencies, organizations and systems for the task of making things–from steam engines to microchips. Going forward, we must learn to be equally adept at the task of making change.”
– Eric Young, from the Forward of Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed

While the other themes in this Knowledge Hub help explain the elements that support social innovation, this section provides a general overview of social innovation. From here, you’re invited to explore the Hub’s specific theme areas for more learning and new ideas for action.

In this introductory video, Dr. Frances Westley explains SiG’s definition of social innovation as change that happens across scales to profoundly change complex systems. To skip the long introduction and start as Frances begins her presentation, go to the 6:15 minute mark.

SES08 – What is social innovation? from Social Innovation Generation on Vimeo.

The Life of an Idea

Many of the terms that came up during this video are included in the theme areas on this Knowledge Hub. All of these relate to new ideas for social change and their potential for positive, long-lasting impact. These ideas or inventions need to be designed, developed, experimented with and, when possible, scaled to become innovations that can have broad impact.

Frances’ presentation made mention of the Adaptive Cycle, a model that can be used as a tool to understand the phases where new social ideas emerge, are launched as initiatives, become successful and inevitably adapt and change over time. It also gives clues to why great ideas get stuck sometimes. This slide deck shows a visual overview of the adaptive cycle using the growth of a forest as an analogy, followed by a set of slides that look at the different stages and when different kinds of supports are needed for individuals, organizations and programs.

Some Innovative Ideas in Canada

Roots of Empathy

Roots of Empathy’s mission is to build caring, peaceful and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults. Developing empathy is the key to building understanding and breaking cycles of violence. The Roots of Empathy innovation is the demonstration that empathy in children can be very effectively developed in their classroom by providing experiential learning through direct, caring interactions with a baby.

For more profiles on innovative ideas, visit the SiG National site (Internet Archive)

Getting to Maybe

Much of the work developed by the SiG partnership was initially inspired by the book Getting to Maybe, by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton. This is an excellent introductory resource on social innovation. Click the image below to find out more about the book.

Further Resources

Now that you’ve explored some thinking and examples about social innovation, you can either Dive further to learn about these concepts in greater detail, or view other areas of the Hub. For more reading on social innovation, we recommend a couple of resources below but also feel free to search our database for other items of interest.

A social innovation primer

Patterns, Principles, and Practices in Social Innovation by Stephen Huddart

As you dive deeper into this topic, you can explore examples of ideas that developed to make real change in complex systems. Case studies are a great way to do this. Take a look at the Great Bear Rainforest case study. It describes a campaign that supported a very unusual and quite innovative collaboration – one that eventually resulted in radical shifts to resource management in British Columbia. It’s a noteworthy example of new ways to tackle very complex problems.

SiG researchers have written a number of papers to help explain new thinking on social innovation, including its relation to resilience, how it happens in the increasing complexity of our world, the critically important role of ‘institutional’ or ‘system’ entrepreneurs, and the urgent need to re-engage vulnerable populations in our political, cultural and economic systems. Read this paper to learn more about the dynamics that are at play when change happens in systems.

For a further dive into the growing body of social innovation research produced by SiG@Waterloo and the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience, visit their main site here. Also consider taking a journey through their newly developed MOOC! Offered free and available at your own pace, learn more about social innovation for complex problems.

Note: A complete list of all SiG educational resources can be found in our publicly-available document library. We hope you’ve found this pathway to learning in social innovation helpful.