Secrets of Social Innovation Success – Changing the Lens, Building Missing Links, Engaging a New ‘Customer’ Base and Leveraging Peer-Support

January 18, 2012  |  Social Entrepreneurs, Social Innovation  |  2 Comments

Lettice F and Parekh M.  2010.  The Social Innovation Process: Themes Challenges and Implications for Practice, International Journal of Technology Management, Vol 51, No 1, pp139-158.  doi: 10.1504/IJTM.2010.033133

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This paper came about after meeting Menka Parekh at The Hub in London in 2007 and sharing a mutual interest in all things innovation.  We decided to work on a small-scale project to interview 10 social entrepreneurs and find out more about the social innovation process.  We were also interested to learn whether any lessons could be transferred from general business innovation theory and practice.

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We used Mulgan et al’s (2007) definition of social innovation as new products, services and models that have been developed to meet social needs.   It was recent then and resonated with our views of what social innovation is.

We then selected a broad range of people to interview from our networks, from start-ups to established and mature organisations and covering both private and not-for-profit sectors or some combination of the two.  We wanted to get a diverse set of views from which to generate common approaches, problems and enablers to social innovation.

From the interviews, we identified 4 dominant and recurring themes:

  1. Changing the Lens:  The social innovators had been able to view the problem in a different way from others, using a different lens and imagining a different solution.  For example, an electric vehicle start-up faced the problem that there is no market for electric vehicles (remember this was back in 2007!), but they re-expressed the problem as “there is a market for desirable vehicles” and set about designing and developing an electric sports car.
  2. Building Missing Links: This is the ability of the social innovators to link up previously unconnected parts of the market or find new spaces in between.  One ethical fashion organization wanted to better connect the markets for fashion with the producers “to reduce poverty and create sustainable livelihoods through trade”.
  3. Engaging a New ‘Customer’ Base: Many social innovations start on the fringes, outside the boundaries of traditional organisations and serve new or niche customer bases.  For example, fairtrade and organic products evolved as niche social innovations and have evolved to become increasingly mainstream offerings.  For social innovators that work with people on low incomes, it can be helpful to frame them as ‘customers’ to ensure that solutions resonate better with their wants and needs.
  4. Leveraging Peer-Support: We found that social innovators need to be part of a network or community of innovators and tap into peer support for inspiration, fresh ideas, moral support and access to partnerships and finance.  Our social innovators sometimes struggled to identify networks to connect with, as social innovations often span boundaries and do not neatly fit into a single category.  One of the interviewees said: “Charity people say we are a business, business people say we are a charity and the government says we are an odd hybrid!”

We did find that many of the problems faced by business entrepreneurs and innovators also apply to social innovators.  But, for social innovators the problems can be made worse by the increased complexity of a broader range of stakeholders and the seemingly intractable nature of some of the social problems being addressed.

Also, see the SIX (Social Innovation Exchange) website for the tools and techniques to help social innovators, which include Scanning the Periphery, Developing a Reflective Approach and Patience, Identifying a Niche Market and Creating or Leveraging a Peer Support System.

These and related findings were presented at the ‘Operations Management in the Third Sector’ Conference at Leeds University Business School on Wednesday 20th March 2013.

Reference

Mulgan G, Tucker S, Ali R and Sanders B.  (2007)  Social innovation: what it is, why it matters and how it can be accelerated, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Saïd Business School, Oxford University, The Young Foundation, working paper – downloadable from http://youngfoundation.org/publications/social-innovation-what-it-is-why-it-matters-how-it-can-be-accelerated/