Why make way for social innovation?

What is social innovation?

History has had its share of technological and scientific innovations, in every era and every sphere of society – science, transportation, infrastructure, technology, communications and many more. Out of the laboratories of inventors came innovations like the wheel, the airplane, penicillin, the Internet and the iPhone, revolutionizing and transforming society. And it is precisely because they responded to an unfulfilled need or a specific user problem, or because they were designed to offer an engaging experience, that they were adopted quite naturally on the market and have generated a domino effect in all sectors of society.

The same is true for social innovation. Before becoming a social innovation, a new idea first emerges to respond to a complex and persistent social or environmental issue, such as global warming or growing socio-economic inequalities. This idea, which arises as a potential response to a specific issue, can only be described as an “innovation” once it is deployed and adopted by the target population, in the same way an invention gradually earns its name as technological or scientific innovation. Microcredit, food cooperatives or fair trade commerce are all good examples of social innovations that have been embraced by multiple communities over time and have caused systemic change in their communities.

The nuance is that an invention or an idea may well remain undiscovered on the drawing board of its creator, but it only becomes an “innovation” when communities and the market understand and adopt it. This is the main distinction between an invention and an innovation.

The strength of social innovation

Going it alone is a recipe for failure. And since any action has a ripple effect, neither corporations, nor public institutions, nor philanthropists, nor citizens can address the complex and systemic issues of society on their own without the input of all key players within the system. This is why the MIS focuses on social innovation, whose inclusive approach is based on the commitment and cooperation of all stakeholders around an issue. It adheres to an approach that goes beyond mere benevolence or compromise in order to seek out a definitive resolution. The MIS embraces complexity; it is passionate about untangling the knots and navigating beyond the apparent dead ends of complex issues because it knows that through their resolution will emerge innovative solutions with positive impact that will drive real change.

Demystifying the criteria for identifying a social innovation

The MIS wants to be inclusive of different approaches to social innovation and is a space for exchange and experimentation, allowing a wide variety of socio-economic actors to learn from one another. Drawing on the definition proposed by the Réseau Québécois en innovation sociale, the MIS summarizes the main criteria for identifying a social innovation as follows:

  • Social innovation can take different forms. It can be a product, a service, a process, a program, a policy, a digital platform or even a law or a public regulation. It can be a new solution to a complex social and environmental problem or the improvement of an existing solution. Social innovation focuses first and foremost on the full potential of the communities involved in the process in order to continually broaden and renew the scope of the positive social and environmental impact that they generate.
  • It comes from an innovation-specific approach that combines research, creativity, experimentation and critical thinking, as well as consultation and co-creation between all the stakeholders of a project, including the users concerned.
  • It is adopted by its users and not imposed upon them, its potential for appropriation having been validated by users in advance.
  • It affects an entire community, not just an individual. 
  • It aims to transform systems, although there are different levels of positive impact, depending on the type of social innovation in question.

Social innovation can take different forms. It can be a product, a service, a process, a program, a policy, a digital platform or even a law or a public regulation.

The different scales of social innovation

01- Frugal innovation

This is an approach that makes it possible to respond to a need as simply and efficiently as possible, using a minimum of resources, often by transforming the use of an existing service or product. It makes reference to the famous “System D”, i.e. to look for opportunities in the face of adversity, to do more with less, to think and act in a flexible manner, to aim for simplicity, to include people who are experiencing exclusion within existing solutions, etc.

02 – Incremental innovation

This is an improvement to an existing innovation, be it technical or organizational. This improvement requires few complex operations. It makes it possible to extend the life of a solution (a service, product, process, etc.) by having it evolve according to the needs of its users or the problem at hand.

03 – Breakthrough innovation

This refers to a major innovation that radically changes and transforms the habits of decision makers, producers and suppliers, as well as those of communities, clients and users with regard to a defined social issue.

Past and ongoing social innovation projects