What is social innovation?
Social innovation – we hear this buzzword used a lot by the sector, but what does it really mean?
Social innovation pulls from a variety of sectors and disciplines – social services, anthropology, human ecology, project management, systems thinking, etc. – to address complex, social issues at the root cause.
At Volunteer Alberta, we define social innovation as “refining current ways or exploring new ways of solving problems.” It is the community-based ownership of a solution and it supports Alberta’s nonprofits in solving complex issues.
Why does social innovation matter to the sector?
The nonprofit sector is an ecosystem – we are mission-driven organizations working collaboratively across sectors as part of a larger social system. Nonprofits impact communities through the work we do and the services we provide. Healthy communities start with us!
Nonprofits address complex, social challenges from volunteer recruitment and retention to poverty and food scarcity. Due to turnover and funding challenges, we are often in a state of change. Our programs and services, even our organizations, move from growth to destruction. This chaotic cycle presents unique challenges and opportunities; it’s where social innovation thrives.
Applying social innovation tools in your own work
As nonprofits working in complex systems, we find it easier to talk about and map our programs and services in a fluid state. More often than not, this leads us to explore patterns of conservation and growth. Organizations leave little room for foresight and creative destruction.
For an ecosystem to be healthy and resilient, foresight is necessary to navigate your organization through challenging times.
To better understand these phases and build resiliency, we can apply a sense-making tool known as the Adaptive Cycle. The Adaptive Cycle has four distinct phases:
- Growth (development): An idea or concept is born and organizations are accessing financial and human resources to help the idea grow to maturity.
- Conservation (maturity): Where processes, programs and services reach full maturity and are at their peak. In this phase, our organizations are often running like an established, well-oiled machine.
- Collapse/release (creative destruction): Following a disruption to the status quo, organizations or systems let go of resources, energy, and skills from our processes, programs to allow for exploration.
- Reorganization (exploration & renewal): new opportunities are sought, explored, and implemented. This is a time of new growth and optimism.
If you’re just starting out with social innovation or systems change, this concept can be difficult to understand. To help with sense-making, imagine you decide to become a surfer. Before anyone can surf, they need to understand the ocean (foresight or reorganization) – the ebb and flow of the waves, where they break, and the direction of the wind – otherwise, the water can pull you under. Once you understand the flow of the waves, you paddle out to catch the surf. Along the way, you make course corrections and adjust your paddling to suit the ocean (growth). Then you wait for the perfect wave – the one that will break at the right moment and allow you to ride it into shore (conservation). Once you catch the wave, you need to give yourself over to the rhythm of the ocean and keep yourself and your board balanced to stay ahead of the cresting wave (creative destruction or collapse/release).
Surfing requires several skills: the strength to paddle, positioning, timing, and balance to catch the wave and ride it into shore. And, it requires practice. Lots of practice! For new surfers, it is difficult to catch a wave and you may stay in shallow water, honing your skills by practicing on smaller waves. Once you become more familiar with the ocean and your skills, you move further from the shore.
The Adaptive Cycle is a great reflection of the current state but also leaves the necessary space for innovation to thrive. Using the cycle to make sense of a problem, experience, or program, can support new thinking or help us get “unstuck” when challenges arise. It can also support us in creating strategies or approaches to addressing key phases of transition.
The Adaptive Cycle allows us to see programs, problems, or ideas from a bird’s eye view. Where did we start? How far have we come? Where do we need to go?
Like surfing, if you start to feel discouraged with innovation and systems change, it’s important to remember that these tools are meant to encourage idea generation. They won’t solve the problem nor will they always get it right, but they will support you on the journey. Let the creativity flow!
Learn more about social innovation and access Volunteer Alberta’s Social Innovation Toolkit for easy to use templates and examples to apply in your own work.
 Foresight: the ability to anticipate or the action of anticipating what will happen or be needed in the future.
 Creative Destruction: the undoing of long-standing processes and/or programs to make way for innovation or to use resources in new ways.