The Social Innovation Imperative: Create Winning Products, Services, and Programs that Solve Society’s Most Pressing Challenges

Sandra M. Bates

272 pages, McGraw-Hill, 2011

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In recent years, corporations and business leaders have been investing unprecedented amounts of time and money pursuing innovation in order to drive profits and growth. Although far from perfected, tremendous progress has been made in developing best practices on innovation techniques, methods and strategies. In fact, many of these methodologies and techniques are now well established in the corporate world, generating significant improvement in the innovation process. However, when the Return on Investment for innovation isn’t measured in simply dollars but in social good and progress, the game is played very differently—the stakes are higher and dollars are tight meaning that a process that can ensure repeatable success is even more critical. This is why The Social Innovation Imperative was written—to ensure that organizations working to solve our world’s most critical challenges are armed with the tools and techniques used by major innovators in the corporate world to produce successful innovations year after year.

The Social Innovation Imperative explores the challenges and differences of innovation in the social sector. Issues such as health care, education, poverty, disaster response, neglected elderly, environmental destruction, and so on have plagued this world for generations. Why? They are what are often termed ‘wicked problems’—extremely complex issues that involve several different constituents, many of which have conflicting or competing objectives. They often defy traditional means of problem solving because of the numerous causal elements involved that are so interwoven that it is difficult to even untangle the situation. The key to solving these wicked problems lies in our ability to define the issue with precision, and to fully understand the needs of those involved, especially the synergistic needs and conflicting needs. The Social Innovation Imperative provides a framework and tools that help to bring this level of clarity and steps that will help organizations systematically untangle the problem, allowing innovation to take root and flourish.

The focus of the methodology outlined in The Social Innovation Imperative delivers a new way of understanding social issues, breaking them down and putting them through a repeatable, action-oriented process. The book organizes the process of innovation into three major sections: Investigation—defining the social challenge, determining the unmet needs, and examining opportunities to achieve them; Innovation—devising a workable solution and a powerful, effective social business model; and third Implementation—to ensure the unique solution creates shared value among all stakeholders and engages techniques to ensure that ideas don’t become orphan innovations.

The framework outlined in the book removes the mystery from innovation success and provides a systematic approach that any organization can adopt to accelerate the rate at which they can produce innovative programs, services or products. The audience for this book is not at all limited to the non-profits, NGO’s, foundations and governmental agencies, although they were the immediate impetus for the book; however, corporations across the world are being pressed to become a contributor to society in more ways than providing jobs. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review called ‘Creating Shared Value’ by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, outlines the pressure that corporations are under to deliver social contributions, to find ways to extend their value far beyond profit generation into social progress. The goal is for corporations to take the lead in bringing the corporate world and society back in alignment such that companies generate solutions that create economic value that also creates value for society by addressing its needs. In fact, the authors argue that creating shared value will be the key to the next major wave of growth in our economy.1

Innovation programs that target hunger alleviation, disaster relief, education, health-care delivery, conserving our natural resources can all be addressed using the same proven techniques that have enabled corporations to launch wave after wave of innovative new gadgets, technologies and services. Imagine the impact the leaders of our government could have if they took a systematic approach to understanding their citizens’ true needs and then used this information to prioritize budgets, create new programs and services, and identify truly creative means of addressing the needs within limited resources.

Imagine the impact of disruptive innovations that would enable students to learn more effectively, regardless of where they live or what kind of school they go to. By simply identifying the key needs of the members of that ecosystem, state and federal education agencies, small entrepreneurs, non-profits focused on education, and even large organizations, can all be working from a common set of information to create new value for our school systems. The goal of this methodology is to get the ‘needs’ of the parents and students, teachers and administrators, into the hands of those with the creativity and power to generate and implement solutions that will make major improvements in how our children learn.

Imagine innovations for the elderly that would do away with the need for nursing homes, allowing seniors to live their entire lives as productive independent citizens. A challenge such as this will require that innovations take place within the health care field, home construction, consumer technology, telecommunications, and social services. Using the framework and tools outlined in the book, the needs of all members of this ecosystem can be understood, prioritized and then made available to organizations that can in turn generate the innovations needed to make this a reality. The output of the methodology produces a universal blueprint for innovation that can inform and guide disparate organizations who are all working toward a common vision. Organizations who create social programs (such as state social services agencies) that can be modified to accommodate these newly identified needs, health care organizations (such as hospitals and payers) who can adjust benefit programs and create new types of services to support this vision, manufacturers of consumer products who can create new technology and items that will enable the senior to remain independent; architects and builders that can design homes that will better accommodate these prioritized needs; non-profit groups that currently serve seniors (such as Meals on Wheels and transportation organizations) who could add new services to support the needs. There are so many entities that must contribute to make this vision a reality, and yet they can all generate their innovations based on a single source of information generated by the framework within this book.

The value of the methodology is the generation of a common language—an innovation blueprint of the customer needs and constraints—that can enable all of these different types of entities to simultaneously work to make this vision a reality. Who wins in this case? Everyone. Every organization who produces valued solutions that meet these needs wins by earnings and growth, the senior and their families win by reducing the need for painful transitions to a nursing home, the health care system and the government win by reducing the cost of providing care for seniors, social organizations serving this population win because the seniors’ needs are being better met.

This is the ultimate framework for us as a people to come together around a ‘wicked problem’, create an understanding of what ‘success’ looks like in the eyes of the customers, and then turn the free market loose to create solutions. It provides a level playing field by providing insights that can be used by government agencies, non-profits, small entrepreneurs, NGO’s, and large corporations. It will take the joint efforts of the corporate sector, nonprofits, government agencies, and regular citizens to create solutions to these massive issues, a notion called Collective Impact. The vision is that social innovation becomes everyone’s responsibility.

This type of innovation in the social sector is well within reach. The techniques are available now. They have been proven in corporations over the last two decades and have resulted in substantial improvements in the success rate of innovation programs—some claim to achieve as high as an 86 percent success rate.

The Social Innovation Imperative establishes a solid definition of social innovation and argues for its necessity as a discipline that brings together all of the sectors (government, for profit and non-profit) to generate lasting value and innovations for issues that have plagued us for generations. It is the first book that presents a detailed, structured methodology for social innovation derived from academic models and practical experience.

While the book is written primarily as a ‘how-to’ in executing this framework in practice, it also explores three areas—health care, resource conservation and government—in more detail to provide specific examples of its application possibilities.

In the chapter on health care, The Social Innovation Imperative looks at challenges facing the U.S. health care system and why the current platform and business model are creating a never-ending rise in cost and complexity. The chapter on conservation looks at how the needs of people around the world can be balanced against the needs of nature and the need to conserve our natural resources. It explores the unique issues surrounding innovation in this critical space, specifically how to engage nature as a member of the ecosystem whose needs must be considered in order for the innovation to take place. Finally, in the chapter “What Citizen’s Want”, the book outlines a means for which government organizations can take a more systematic approach to understanding the needs and priorities of its citizens for purposes of innovation. Officials and policy makers can benefit from understanding the unmet needs of the population they serve, leading to innovative solutions that will have the most impact across all members of the ecosystem. This chapter in particular we discuss more about a platform for collaboration that is vital for sharing information about citizen needs as well as the innovations that are created, providing a closed loop system that goes from citizen need to solution and how well the solution met the need. It is at this point that innovation reaches a tipping point, a drastic acceleration in which ideas and solutions become rapidly shared and transferred across the country or around the world, all tied back to the original goal—meeting the needs of the citizen. Tying solutions and innovations directly to ‘citizen needs’ is what makes the framework a vital tool and catalyst for social innovation.

Join a free live webcast called “Applying State of the Art Innovation Techniques to the World’s Most Pressing Social Issues” with Sandy Bates sponsored by the Arizona State University Center for Services Leadership on Wednesday, June 27, at 1pm ET. The webinar will also be posted for listening after June 27th.