What is social innovation?

December 19, 2014

What is social innovation?

Social innovation is a complex process of introducing new products, processes or programs that profoundly change the basic routines, resource and authority flows, or beliefs of the social system in which the innovation occurs. Such successful social innovations have durability and broad impact.

(The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, Vol. 15(2), article 2).

The most widely used ‘social’ terms include social innovation, social enterprise and social entrepreneur. Each of these terms reflects different perspectives of the social sector however they are different. There are in fact many definitions and it is easy to get caught up in a debate about meaning (CSI, 2013).

The following, systematic view of innovation is a handy tool in understanding this terminology broadly and explains on which scale each of the three concepts introduce innovation.

A systematic view of innovation

A systematic view of innovation Source: Westall, A.2007

Social entrepreneurship focuses on the person driving an innovation and social enterprise is the vehicle through which the social entrepreneur leverages resources. Social innovation in the broad sense strives to change the way a system operates. As such, social innovation transcends sectors, levels of analysis, and methodology to discover the processes, the strategies, tactics, and theories of change that produce lasting impact. Social entrepreneurship and social enterprise operate within the larger framework of “wider trends of thought and practice”.

Understanding social innovation

Every day across the world, individuals come up with new ideas, large and small, for improving their lot and the lot of those around them. This is in response to locally perceived problems or social needs. Many of these innovations thrive locally and sometimes they spread, generating a broader impact as the effect of a deliberate strategy or simply through a process of diffusion. When a social innovation has a broad or durable impact, it is considered disruptive and catalytic.

Many large scale social innovations have been associated with pioneer organizations, however there are very few major global innovations that have had just one organization responsible for systems change. For example, the human rights movement or eco movement have emerged from a diversity of different people and organizations driving varying response approaches that put pressure on an existing system to change.

Is social innovation important?

“The problems faced by society are so large that only innovativeness of the highest order will overcome them.”

(Leonard, 1999)

Social innovation is needed now more than ever before to build social and ecological resilience in the face of mounting complex challenges in our economic, social, political and cultural institutions.

Sustainable development is defined as “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (The Brundtland Commission).

If we do not look at innovative ways to shift current unsustainable and ineffective social and ecological systems and adopt new approaches to developing as a society, this will have dire consequences for generations to come.

Your contribution to social innovation

Your contribution as a business owner should not be underestimated. You may not consider yourself to be a social entrepreneur or your business to be a social enterprise. Yet the manner in which you conduct business, your purchasing decisions, your choice in supplier, in fact everything your organization does, supports a system or institution.

Have you stopped to think about what systems you are in fact supporting? The impact that you and your organization could make in building a better future for generations to come is significant and real.


Bärlund, K. (2004). Sustainable development – concept and action – UNECE. [online] Unece.org. Available at: http://www.unece.org/oes/nutshell/2004-2005/focus_sustainable_development.html [Accessed 31 Oct. 2014].

Growing Opportunity: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Insoluble Problems. (2007). London: SustainAbility, Skoll Foundation.

Mulgan, G., Sanders, B., Halkett, R. and Ali, R. (2007). In and out of Sync : The challenge of growing social innovations. [online] Available at: http://www.nesta.org.uk/sites/default/files/in_and_out_of_sync.pdf.

Socialinnovation.ca, (2014). About the Centre for Social Innovation | Centre for Social Innovation. [online] Available at: http://socialinnovation.ca/about [Accessed 1 Dec. 2014].

Westall, A. (2007). How can innovation in social enterprise be understood, encouraged and enabled. London: Office of the Third Sector.

Westley, F. and Antadze, N. (2010). Making a difference: strategies for scaling social innovation for greater impact. The Innovation Journal.

 Image credit: by Gary Hamel opensource.com, via flickr.com.


Ondine Hogeboom

Ondine Hogeboom is a social entrepreneur. She started her first business at 17 and went on to launch another five businesses over the past 15 years in Southern Africa. She currently mentors a number of social innovation start-ups through the dynamic phase of business development. She is both humbled and inspired by these pioneers, taking brave new ideas out into the world in order to change the world. Follow her on Twitter, @OndineHB.