With the establishment of the White House Office of Social Innovation, the announcement of the Social Innovation Fund awardees earlier this summer, and last week’s article on social innovation in the Economist, social innovation is now officially the hot term of the day – so hot that there is a danger that it will end up meaning nothing.
The emergence of “social innovation” as the term that has gained mainstream attention is not surprising. For decades, “innovation” has been a glamorous term used by business and government to excite business leaders, entrepreneurs, and the general public to think about the future with hope. Social innovation has leapt into the spotlight for many of the same reasons. When it comes to today’s social issues, we face large challenges, many of which have persisted for decades, and the idea of social innovation give us hope for a new way to solve old problems.
But turning that hope into measurable progress on our toughest social challenges is going to require discipline--to ensure this attention brings true change. In other words, now that we have firmly established social innovation as a possible way to generate greater solutions, the big question becomes: what do we need ensure this focus on social innovation works?
In the end, social innovation must be about ensuring that more resources are allocated to what works, in order to accelerate our solutions to the tough social issues that we face now and those that will arise in the future. One of the lessons of the efforts to address social problems in the United States in recent decades, I believe, is that no one sector has the resources and the knowledge to tackle today’s social issues alone. We need to create what I would call a social impact market that enables greater collaboration across sectors and social issues--in order to foster innovation and direct resources towards the most effective approaches. How do we realize this new kind of market? I believe the answer lies in the development of cadre of leaders from all sectors that fundamentally commit to fostering social innovation to ensuring that resources are allocated based on performance. We need great champions from the three sectors to become models for hundreds of thousands of others. A colleague of mine recently said, “When a challenge to a system has reached mainstream, the next stage of its evolution is to ensure there are enough well-trained leaders to make that system stick.” Perhaps that is part of the story that will unfold in the next chapter of social innovation.