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Social Innovation: a literature review

Mark Walton

We are conducting a research project looking at social innovation, how it scales and how it retains or grows its social impact. We’re keen to get feedback on this work as it develops. Please take a look and leave a comment.

A key conclusion of the social innovation literature is that there has been little study of social innovation compared to innovation in business and science.[1] It is noted however that innovation usually involves some struggle against vested interests,[2] and thrives best when there are effective alliances between small organisations and entrepreneurs, and big organisations that can grow ideas to scale.[3]

Three models of innovation are proposed[4] each with different drivers

– a market model (with demand side pull and supply side push)

– an institutional change model where non market drivers such as public opinion are in play, influencing the priorities of funders and agencies,

– an institutional transformation model where individuals or networks actively bring about sudden and discontinuous change.

It is noted that social organisations tend to be better suited to ‘process innovation’ (meeting social aims more efficiently and at lower cost) than ‘product innovation’ which can require costly and high risk investment.[5]

Scaling Innovation
The phenomenon of scaling is also poorly understood and described.
Scaling up is about ‘expanding impact’ and not necessarily about ‘becoming large,’ the latter being only one possible way to achieve the former.[6]

Different types of scaling are identified. The form of scaling where the organisation retains the greatest degree of control is where it is undertaken through its own organisational growth. It may also retain a degree of control by scaling through ‘directed diffusion’ e.g. licensing or franchising. More uncontrolled forms of are associated with takeover or emulation by a more powerful organisation, and general diffusion to, and adaptation by, other organisations.[7]

Some types of innovation may be more suited to controlled approaches to scaling than others. If an idea is easily transferable it may be difficult or impossible to control how it scales. However if an innovation is particularly technical or requires a specific set of relationships of circumstances to be successful, it may be that it can only be scaled in a more controlled manner.[8]

We have used these concepts to examine a long list of social innovations, asking ourselves:

– what degree of control did the key organisations seek to exert over the scaling of the innovation

– how replicable or transferable was the innovation?

– what are the drivers that led to the innovation and scaling (pull from communities or a push from policy makers or funders)?

– what has been the role of intermediary organisations in the scaling of the innovation?

Figure 1 shows a number of social innovations plotted against degree of replicability and degree of control over scaling. Our working theory is that in order to scale successfully organisations should be somewhere on the centre line of this plot i.e. their chosen method of scaling should be congruent with the extent to which they have, or require, control over the adoption of the innovation by others. We will seek to test this idea as the work develops through semi structured interviews with stakeholders across five social innovations; community food growing, Fairtrade, recycling, HIV care and asset transfer.

Figure 1. Social innovations plotted against type of growth and degree and replicability

Through interviews we will also be exploring the impacts of policy and funding interventions and the extent to which they changed the drivers for innovation and scaling from being market ‘pull’ to market ‘push’. We will examine the role of intermediaries and the characteristics of the social organisations that may support or hamper the scaling of social innovations. The extent to which social organisations have developed markets and supply chains that support the delivery of their social purposes will also be explored.

 


[1] C. Seelos & J Mair, 2012, What determines the capacity for continuous innovation in social sector organisations?, Rockerfeller Foundation Stanford PACS Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society

[2] G. Mulgan, S. Tucker, R. Ali and B. Sanders, 2007, Social Innovation: what it is, why it matters and how it can be accelerated, The Young Foundation

[3] O. Jarvis and R. Marvel, 2012, When Bees meet Trees: How large social sector organisations can help to scale social innovation, Clore Social Leadership Programme

[4] F. Westley and N. Antadze, 2010, Making a difference: strategies for scaling social innovation for greater impact, The Innovation Journal: the public sector innovation journal, Vol 15(2)

[5] C. E. Hull and B. H. Lio, 2006, Innovation in non-profit and for-profit organisations: visionary, strategic and financial considerations, Journal of Change Management Vol 6, No 1, 53-65

[6] P. Uvin, P. S. Jain and D. Brown, 2000, Think large and act small: towards a paradigm for NGO scaling up, World Development Vol. 28, No. 8, pp. 1409±1419

[7] G. Mulgan, R. Ali, R. Halkett and B. Saunders, 2007, In and out of sync: the challenge of growing social innovations, NESTA

[8] Ibid

 

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