Humanity is in a chaotic phase, evolving from a civilization born of the industrial revolution to a civilization emerging from the digital revolution. As the pace of this evolution increases, so does our effort to direct it. That effort is called social innovation and it too is evolving.
From revolutions in music and media to the uprisings of the Arab Spring, Occupy movement and even Wikileaks, we can see a common pattern. Each is enabled by digital technology and the result of a complex social process comprised of many individual actions. Often they are user-driven, unfold rapidly, and challenge or circumvent a system that no-longer works they way its participants want. Ultimately, this is about people and the way they want the future to work, for them. It is the evolution of our civilization.
Social innovation describes what is happening in more detail. According to Social Innovation Generation:
“Social innovation is an initiative, product or process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system (e.g. individuals, organizations, neighbourhoods, communities, whole societies).”
Going a bit further, the Social Innovation Exchange and Young Foundation describe:
“Social innovations are innovations that are both social in their ends and in their means. Specifically, we define social innovations as new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words they are innovations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act.“
Keying in on the challenges of dealing with complex systems Tim Draimin observes that “As today’s problems evolve from ‘complicated’ to ‘complex’, the expert-led approach falls short.”. In response to this challenge, leaders in social innovation are turning to Innovation Labs for their core capacity to: “Perceive and articulate a common understanding of a challenge; Creatively identify possible solutions; Experiment, prototype, test, outreach; and Implement”. While the concept of these labs borrows loosely from the scientific version of laboratory, it firmly recognizes the increasing importance of social technology in innovation.
The design of these labs are also being influenced by the iterative, human and user-centred design practices gaining prominence in the digital revolution. A definite response to the increasing personalization of digital technology and the accelerating pace of development, these practices fit particularly well with social innovation and its focus on the needs of people in general and vulnerable populations in particular.
Take Tyze for example. From years of experience, PLAN knew that the key to quality of life for people with disabilities was the quality of their personal network. Combining that insight with the concept of social networks, PLAN created Tyze to help strengthen the networks around its individual members. Centred around people with disabilities the site grew rapidly and is now starting to influence the way health-care services are provided to its members. While Tyze was an early pioneer in employing digital technology for social innovation in this way, the understanding of its role is becoming more widespread. As Annika Small, director of the Nominet Trust describes, “Technology gives us the opportunity to think differently, develop new social connections and reorganize resources across communities.”
Beyond these types of direct applications, digital technology also has a deeper connection. Like social innovation, digital technology is about connections. The web, or as Tim-Berners-Lee recently described, “Humanity linked by tech”, is a rapidly expanding, interconnected network of people, places, things and data that effectively contains an actionable model of every social system one could aim to affect or create. It is the ultimate social innovation lab and carries unprecedented potential to observe, experiment, develop, and diffuse social innovation. Indeed, as the digital revolution unfolds it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine any social innovation independent of the context and application of digital technology.
As we navigate this transition, social innovation is emerging as a key enabler of our resilience and our future. At the same time, social and digital technology are emerging as a core foundation for social innovation. And while innovation labs appear to be a cornerstone of that foundation, it’s clear that we’ve only just begun building. As our civilization transitions we can expect our challenges to deepen and the pace of change to accelerate. As daunting as it can seem, this emerging model of social innovation offers hope for what’s possible and reminds us that now, more than ever, we are building it together.