Social Innovation – is the 'catch phrase' most commonly used to describe  the imperative to unleash our collective creativity to respond to tough, deeply embedded social and environmental problems.  These existing and emerging challenges seem to be resistant to traditional solutions and approaches.  Just as bacteria becomes drug resistant over time, inter-generational poverty; climate change; species extinction; violence; human services transformation;  social exclusion; develop similar immunities.  Simply put, we have to stop doing what we've always done or we'll keep getting what we've always got! 

These challenges are of course nothing more than opportunities to bring out our best – our best talent, creativity, ingenuity and caring.  Frances Westley my dear colleague at Social Innovation Generation (SiG) links social innovation to the re-engagement of vulnerable or marginalized populations, not as passive recipients of services but as active participants and contributors. In doing so, she argues, we regain diverse viewpoints and benefit from original perspectives which are the sources of novelty. Further, these refreshing, unique, new voices will have a positive impact on the capacity of society as a whole to be innovative and make the necessary transformation.

It is generally accepted that we have to ignite creative sparks within: government, business and community sector organizations.  And we do. 

However, there is another rich source of innovation, as Frances suggests: individuals, families and small informal social networks.  Indeed there is mounting evidence to suggest they are a primary  source of social innovation and that they in turn provide solutions eventually adopted by the more formal sectors – non-profits and government institutions.

This should not be surprising.  Social movements are never started by institutions. Think for example about Mothers Against Drinking and Driving; the collection of passionate foodies engaged in the food movement; Muhammad Yunus ,Grameen Bank and micro credit; and my own movement – the family based disability movement. Starting after the Second World War it has been a force for legal and regulatory change, funding support and attitudinal shifts which enable our sons and daughters to participate and contribute to society. 

I admit a bias – my years as a community organizer has convinced me of the primacy of citizen based solutions.  PLAN families have pioneered new ways of thinking about disability i.e. the handicap isn't the disability, it is poverty and social isolation.  PLAN's RDSP campaign was eventually adopted by the federal government and is a wide spread social innovation that addresses poverty.  TYZE is another social innovation that emerged from Vickie Cammack's work with PLAN.  TYZE is making it easier for people around the world to organize supportive caring networks for those who are vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness.

Over the coming years individuals, families and voluntary social networks will play a crucial role in responding to the challenges of ageing; belonging; social isolation; family care-giving; childcare; funding constraints; civic re-engagement; health and education services and environmental disrespect. 

As public, private and non profit sectors begin their shift to increase their capacity for social innovation, let's make sure we provide equal opportunities and resources for an explosion of innovation from the original source – from citizens, from users, and from consumers. 

If you are interested in understanding and learning more about individual, family and social network innovation check out these resources:

(1) Watch Charles Leadbeater's  TED talk, The Rise of the
Amateur Professional
.  Charles observes that big disruptive innovations arise from
the collaboration among passionate users and consumers – from people who do it for love.  He is a writer and thinker who practices what he preaches and has created an imaginative consumer driven organization, Particple.

(2) Read a recent European Union Study on Social Innovation  (
Download HOUSEHOLDSStudy on Social Innovation_22 February 2010_0 ) produced for the European Union by Social innovation Exchange and the Young Foundation.  See page 58 for a description of Households as a source of innovation.

(3) View Ezio Mancini an Italian designer, I am much taken with, and his U-Tube talk : Sustainable Design, or, Dinosaurs Had Their Day Too .  

(4) Explore John McKnight and Peter Block's new book, Abundant CommunityRight in our neighborhood we have the capacity to
address our human
needs in ways that systems,
which see us only as interchangeable units,
as problems to be solved, never can. Each neighborhood has people with
the gifts and talents needed to
provide for our prosperity and peace of mind.

To paraphrase Margaret Meade, Never doubt that a small group of passionate, loving individuals, families and small, social networks can change the world.  Indeed it may be the only thing that ever did!

2 Comments

  1. Vern Hughes

    This is a terrific article. In Australia, social innovation is flavour of the month with governments and services, but they invariably mean smarter ways of doing things on the part of governments and services. Individuals and families are only thought of as the target, or object, of their initiatives.
    Charlie Leadbeater’s work is terrific in developing social innovation as something that begins with society (individuals, families, communities) and then flows through to effect institutions and governments. If it begins with governmnents and formal services, then it should be called something else, perhaps, public sector innovation, or service delivery innovation.
    I am interested in connecting up with people around the world who have this people-centred, socially-oriented view of innovation. We need to enlarge our voice.

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