A little while ago, I attended a seminar with Simon Willis, CEO of the Young Foundation, about civil society and social change. I just started my new position at the Maecenata Institute, which was hosting the event in collaboration with the Young Foundation and the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft.
The first thing that struck me was the title of the event: ‘Disruptive Innovation’. I never heard that term before and certainly not within the social sector. I was principally familiar with the concept of social innovation as a way of finding innovative approaches to address social problems instead of waiting for the government to start new programmes.
The term ‘disruptive innovation’, however, was new to me. But I learned that it is often used in business to describe strategies which improve a product or a service in an unexpected way. Through strong network building and a very practice-orientated bottom-up approach new value system are established, and obsolete ways of thinking are disrupted and replaced.
The Young Foundation is applying this method to the social sector, and Simon’s talk presented their approach and some of the challenges, which I outline here:
Disruptive vs. Sustaining Innovation
Speaking of disruptive innovation, I briefly recap the concepts of both ‘disruptive’ and ‘sustaining innovation’, which are not opposed but slightly different. Sustaining innovation evolves in existing markets, allowing the companies within to compete against each other’s sustaining improvements.
Disruptive Innovation is an attack from outside an organization which happens quite often in the private sector. According to Simon, small companies’ ability to destroy large companies through the process of disruption is based on the short decision-making processes that gives a crucial advantage over large companies with large teams and long processes to figure out what the next innovation might be.
So, the idea of social innovation is to take successful innovative strategies that are used in the market and adapting those tools to tackle social problems. Sounds simple, but how does it work exactly? And how can we actually apply business strategies to our social impact project?
Leaving known paths behind
First of all, we need to disrupt the traditional approach of tackling social problems which is mostly to plan for a couple of years, start projects which are very top-down orientated, very expensive and by the time the project takes effect the problem has often changed. Whereas a better strategy to deal with social problems is to engage with communities, sit down with the people and design a service that actually addresses their needs and interests. The method in itself is social.
Secondly, innovative ideas in any sector do not fall simply from the sky. Social innovation is constantly hard, persistent work, and above all, it is mostly collaborative work. You need different people at different parts of the process with different ideas. Simon pointed out that a team of specialists, particularly from the same field, is very unlikely to innovate, because they tend to stick to the approaches they already know. Most innovations are raised in multidisciplinary environments with low hierarchies. In fact, having strong leaders is incredibly narrowing for any innovation culture. Also very important is that each team member is constantly open for correction within the process.
The major challenge, however, is that social innovative projects can be slow and can fail, which is a barrier to getting funded. Funders want to know what the results are going to be at the beginning of the process. However, in the case of social innovation, by definition, the outcome of the process is unknown.
Sustaining disruptive Innovation
Disruptive innovation may be a way out of a whole range of dilemmas social innovation is facing. Interestingly, combining social impact and entrepreneurship with democratic values like participation and inclusion offer the best chance for continuous improvement. Having met Simon Willis in this early stage of my career within the social sector, I believe that the approach of social innovation has laid a solid foundation for my further steps. Professionally, my interest for social impact in combination with entrepreneurship was boosted. Personally, it gave me confidence that – although being a newbie – my ideas are equally valid and that failure is not a problem, but the continuous chance of improvement.
written by Mia Bunge, Research Associate at Maecenata Institute