Introduction to 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