A little while ago, I attended an event with Simon Willis, CEO of the Young Foundation, on civil society and social change. I had just started my new position at the Maecenata Institute in Berlin, which was hosting the event in collaboration with the Young Foundation and the Anglo-German Society. The first thing that struck me was the title: ‘Disruptive Innovation’. I had never heard that before and certainly not within civil society.
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 systems 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.
Disruptive vs sustaining innovation
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, which happens quite often in the private sector. According to Simon, small companies’ ability to destroy large ones through the process of disruption is based on their short decision-making processes, which give them a crucial advantage over large organizations 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 adapt those tools to tackle social problems. Sounds simple, but how does it work exactly? And how can we actually apply business strategies to a social impact project?
Leaving established paths
First of all, we need to disrupt the traditional approach to tackling social problems, which is mostly to plan for a couple of years, and to start projects that are top-down orientated and expensive. By the time the project is working, the problem has often changed. 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.
Second, innovative ideas in any sector do not fall from the sky. Social innovation is constantly hard, persistent work; above all, it is mostly collaborative work. You need different people with different ideas at different stages of the process. 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 emerge in multidisciplinary environments with low hierarchies. In fact, having strong leaders is incredibly narrowing for any innovation culture. Every team member should constantly be open to correction within the process.
The major challenge, however, is that socially innovative projects may be slow and can fail, which is a barrier to them getting funded. Funders want to know the outcome at the beginning of the process. In social innovation, the outcome of the process is unknown by definition.
Disruptive innovation may be a way out of a whole range of dilemmas that social innovation is facing. Interestingly, combining social impact and entrepreneurship with democratic values like participation and inclusion offers the best chance for continuous improvement.
Click here for a full report of the event.
Mia Bunge is a research associate at Maecenata Institute.