Oct 10, 2015

At a time of major /budgetary constraints, social innovation is an effective way of responding to social challenges, by mobilising people’s creativity to develop solutions and make better use of scarce resources.  Often, social innovation involves not just new ideas but the remaking and reuse of existing ideas. Social innovations can take the form of a new service, initiative or organisation, or alternatively, a radically new approach to the organisation and delivery of services. Social Innovations are not only good for society but also enhance society’s capability to act. 

A common definition of Social Innovation is, ‘the development of new ideas to meet unmet social needs in the public good'. Simply put, social innovations are ideas that work. They are new solutions that:-

  • Meet a social need more effectively;
  • Lead to specific new/improved capabilities & relationships;
  • Lead to better use of assets & resources;
  • Are good for society & enhance society’s capacity to act.

All social innovations have the following common features:-

  • Grass roots and bottom–up;
  • Create new roles & relationships;
  • Open & collaborative.

Social innovation describes the entire process by which new responses to social needs are developed in order to deliver better social outcomes. This process is composed of four main elements:

  1. Identification of new/unmet/inadequately met social needs;
  2. Development of new solutions in response to these social needs;
  3. Evaluation of the effectiveness of new solutions in meeting social needs;
  4. Scaling up of effective social innovations.

There are various vehicles for driving social innovation, politics and government (for example, new models of public health), markets (for example, open source software or organic food), movements (for example, fair trade), and academia (for example, pedagogical models of childcare), as well as social enterprises (microcredit and magazines for the homeless). Many of the most successful innovators have learnt to operate across the boundaries between these sectors and innovation thrives best when there are effective alliances between small organisations, entrepreneurs and big organisations which can grow ideas to scale. Innovations then scale up along a continuum from diffusion of ideas to organic growth of organisations, with the patterns of growth dependent on the mix of environmental conditions (including effective demand to pay for the innovation) and capacities (managerial, financial etc.).

The financial crisis of 2008 has changed our social infrastructures immeasurably. With funding and resources for public spending at an all time low, we are seeing a reorganisation of both wealth and power structures on a grand scale. Central and local Governments are increasingly working with the private sector, and new forms of partnership are growing to achieve efficiency and value for the public. The crisis has seen a polarisation of wealth among the few, which is impacting on how cities, systems and environments are being designed. The openness and transparency afforded to the public by technology has the dual effect of making planners and decision makers more accountable, while at the same time offering a new role for citizens to participate in how hardware (built environments) and software (service experiences) is designed.


At Innovate Dublin we engage citizens through the application of strategic design tools, to solve what are seemingly complex social and economic challenges through Design Thinking. Design Thinking is often described as an approach to problem solving, however, one of the most useful aspects of design is that it is an approach to problem finding, and a tool that puts the citizen at the core. Design is particularly suited to the messy or wicked problems that the majority of those in the social sector concern themselves with. The methods encourage exploration of the bigger picture - the real life challenges, the organisational processes and cultures and the major trends driving change in the world around us – and then help to identify patterns and opportunities to make a difference.

Design Thinking is a human-centred process, it is all about ‘you’, relying on our ability to be intuitive, source patterns, construct ideas that possess emotional meaning as well as functional – it provides an alternative to the rational and analytical approach. Citizens are experts of their own lives: they have information about themselves that no centralised bureaucracy can ever have, namely, knowledge of their own needs, desires and experiences. The tacit knowledge that citizens hold is often critical to the innovation process.

Typically there are three orderly steps within the Design Thinking process:-

1 Inspiration - the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for our solutions.

To develop solutions it is first important to identify the challenges and problems that need addressing. In some cases, where it is citizens themselves who develop an innovation, needs and challenges will already be well understood. But often those driving an innovation process are civil servants, public policy makers and non-profit leaders who do not experience these problems and challenges first hand. Citizens themselves are best placed to articulate these challenges.

2 Ideation- the process of generating, developing solutions.

In many cases, citizens themselves hold the relevant knowledge and skills to develop effective innovations. Engagement processes, such as citizen competitions and co-design processes can help to uncover these ideas. Many of these social challenges are ‘wicked’ or complex problems that defy linear, top-down policy responses. Solutions to wicked problems therefore cannot be delivered in the way that commercial products are delivered – they require the participation, co-operation and ‘buy in’ of users.

3 Implementation - the path that leads from the project stage.

Implementation is the key to the creation of the final product or service. In this space, prototyping is extremely important. Testing within a small and well chosen sample set of users can help create revolutionary products.

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