Reimagining Social Innovation

I once thought that I was destined for a career in business. But when I started looking into MBA programs at the tender age of 22, I found myself intrigued with the possibility of focusing on nonprofit management. And so, I embarked upon a new direction and dedicated the next fifteen years of my career almost exclusively to nonprofit organizations.

Today I am considering a new direction for my life's work, one that transcends the limitations of labels such as 'business' and 'nonprofit.' I have been thinking a lot about social innovation.

I find the idea of social innovation very exciting; yet, much of the literature in the field does not fully resonate with me. I have nothing whatsoever against the thousands of scholars and practitioners who are dedicated to social innovation; in fact, I am inspired by them. It's just that I need to be different, to push the figurative envelope. Perhaps this is why the concept of social innovation is so appealing to me.

When I was enmeshed in the practice of organizational leadership as the executive director of a community-based nonprofit organization, with its daily challenges and complexities, I found it difficult to articulate--let alone practice--my vision for social innovation. Having stepped back from that world to explore leadership almost exclusively as a student, writer, and educator over the past six months, I have integrated my experience and ideals to create a working description of social innovation that more deeply reflects my values and ideology.

My current thinking about social innovation has three components: 1) a shift from problems to possibilities; 2) a holistic perspective; and 3) fluidity of implicit and explicit boundaries.

Almost every discipline is littered with rhetoric about problems. Problems are very real indeed, particularly for people who are in the midst of them. I know that I have experienced quite a few of them myself. Yet, optimistically imagining a world of beautiful possibilities, and actively developing those possibilities through discussion and strategic action, seems more innovative and proactive to me. It is a creative response to the conditions of our lives rather than a reaction. It releases us so that we can move forward rather than keeping us tied to the past.

The second component of this conceptualization of social innovation is holism and balance. Social innovation must include attention to both the big picture and the details. Ideas and systems connect, integrate, and continually transform. Science, art, and spirituality become part of a fluid whole that is infinitely connected yet contains infinite distinctions. A holistic perspective does not suggest homogenization; it appreciates diversity. Personal and organizational purpose and identity continually become deeper, more expansive, stronger, and clearer.

Similarly, the existing distinctions between and across businesses, nonprofit organizations, political systems, and educational institutions can be questioned and evolve to reflect current understandings of how we can most efficiently and effectively satisfy human needs through social means. We can create organizations and systems that liberate our collective imaginations and catalyze possibilities.

Don't panic; I'm not suggesting that we scrap everything that previous generations have carefully and lovingly created for us over the years. We can build on the best of our traditions but also choose to let go of those that no longer serve us to make space for previously unimagined possibilities.

I do not see social innovation as a way to rethink charity. Social innovation is not as simple as commodification of charitable services as some might suggest. I do not see it as a way to improve collaboration across sectors. I do not think social innovation necessarily means creating new organizations, programs, and initiatives. It isn't just another new word to describe what has already been done well in many cultures for centuries.

So what is social innovation? It is a process that leads to communal benefit and enrichment through openness, curiosity, and learning. It is choosing to continually renew our ways of thinking, being, doing, connecting, interacting, and creating to fulfill a multitude of human desires. It is the process of transcending and releasing the boundaries of belief, habit, organizations, sectors, and systems and joyfully leaping into the unknown to collaboratively explore and strategically create new possibilities that express and expand our love for each other, fulfill mutual human needs and aspirations, and improve the resilience and well-being of communities around the globe.

While these are my ideas about social innovation at the moment, it is an emerging concept open to further examination and reinterpretation. This blog post is meant as an invitation for others to embark on this exciting journey with me, not as my attempt to plant a stake in the ground. My thoughts about social innovation are microscopic compared to the vast possibilities within each of you. Please share your thoughts.