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It's social innovation, stupid …

By Martin Stewart-Weeks - posted Monday, 16 June 2008

We know how to innovate in science and we have an idea about how to do industrial research and development. But when it comes to thinking up new ways to reduce indigenous poverty or find clever ways to help people live independently as they grow older, it's all a bit hit and miss. In the future, we’re going to have get better at social innovation … much better.

What do these ideas and organisations have in common:

  • the Open University in the UK;
  • The Big Issue organisation that helps homeless people to make money by selling magazines;
  • using the Internet to connect volunteers and new sources of funding to help a village in Africa install and maintain a pump for clean drinking water and another village in Sri Lanka to set up a new bee and honey-making business;
  • putting an Internet-connected computer in a hole in the wall in an Indian slum and then watching as children teach themselves how to surf and communicate; and
  • The Grameen Bank, a pioneer of microcredit for poor, rural people.

At one level, the only thing that unites them is their temerity, confronting profound and apparently intractable disadvantage with an idea that couldn't possibly work. But at another level, they share some important attributes:

  • they invent a capability to confront and overcome complex social problems that didn't exist before;
  • they manifest an entrepreneurial capacity not just to look but to see, bringing to bear a "tenacity of observation" to a set of problems that appeared to be intractable (why on earth would you think the way to eradicate poverty was to lend money to poor people?);
  • they betray a knack for connection and collaboration, snapping together the pieces in a social change value chain that links people, communities, money and institutional capacity;
  • they start from the premise that change has to be sustainable, create new economic opportunity and, in the process, give people a chance to connect to mainstream economic activity; and
  • they tend to break the mould of what is possible.

Welcome to the wonderful world of social innovation, fuelled by the ambition to confront unmet social need by creating new and sustainable capabilities, assets or opportunities for change. Like innovation in any other area - science, industry or commerce - it is about creating a new dimension of performance.

Its growing importance reflects the realisation that failure to deal effectively with the big social dilemmas that affect our lives in common, like poverty, sustainability, ageing and independent living, safe communities, undermines our ability to secure the elusive trifecta - individual growth, social cohesion and economic opportunity.

Australia has done its fair share of innovation when it comes to new social capabilities - community aged care, surf life saving and the flying doctor service just to name a few. But the instinct for invention linked to social change has to be renewed and reframed for contemporary conditions. The innovation process itself must embrace a model infused with the same values around which social innovation good practice is forming - open, collaborative, rigorous and systematic, inclusive and cross-sectoral.

Australia needs to devote as much attention to developing a social innovation system over the next 20 years as it has in the past to the more familiar innovation system for science and industry. At the same time, as we develop the institutions and processes that we need in order to prosecute a more urgent social innovation agenda that matches the traditional focus on industrial and scientific R&D, the innovation system itself has to become more collaborative, more open and inclusive and more responsive to the ideas, experience and insights of citizens and consumers.


We are learning more about what good practice social innovation looks like and about the mix of institutional, financial, policy and organisational resources and capabilities needed to do it well.

But we are still a long way behind in our search for robust and replicable models and methods that will dramatically lift our social innovation capability. In particular, we need to increase the investment from government, the private sector and from civil society to "get better faster" in our search for answers to social challenges.

As it grows more confident, the social innovation impulse is likely to manifest itself in different ways. For some, social innovation is about discovery, invention and experimentation. For others, it is born of pure frustration and the need to protest and demand higher standards of service or care.

It may often be contrarian and counter-intuitive, obsessive and stubborn in the search for an idea that hasn't been tried or a perspective that makes no sense but just might work. Most of all, it will be an impulse that understands the power of connectedness, building powerful networks of thinkers, customers and citizens, researchers and policy leaders whose combined strength is fundamentally a function of their ability to connect, communicate and collaborate.

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About the Author

Martin Stewart-Weeks lives in Sydney. Previously, Martin held positions with the Liberal Party of Australia, the NSW Cabinet Office and was Chief of Staff to a Minister in the Fraser Government.

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