Are You a Social Innovator? 4 Methods to Create Social Innovation

Are You a Social Innovator? 4 Methods to Create Social Innovation

By Tamara Kuhn, MA | October 5, 2015
Research Scientist & Director of Technology, dfusion

“Dreamers are mocked as impractical. The truth is they are the most practical, as their innovations lead to progress and a better way of life for all of us.”   —Robin S. Sharma

I’ve had an interest in innovation since childhood. I was thrilled by the technological wonder of my Easy-Bake Oven. I marveled over the magic of freeze-dried ice cream you could take on camping trips.

Later, I felt genuine affection for my first Polaroid camera and my Commodore 64 in all its boxy computer glory. As an adult, I was pretty dazzled by the first iPhone, a magical device offering constant Internet access and the ability to locate the nearest Starbucks with the flick of a finger.

Sure, that’s normative now, but then? A game-changer. (For the record, not every innovation holds me in its thrall. My mom inherited my Apple watch. The Fitbit is gathering dust in my desk drawer.)

Innovation: Can You Answer the Call?

These days the call to “innovate” is being sounded in a variety of settings, from kindergarten classrooms to the halls of higher education, from community outreach clinics to major hospitals, and from small start-up businesses to global corporations. Phrases such as “disruptive innovation” have entered the lexicon. Job titles such as “Director of Innovation” are an increasingly familiar sight.

This is obviously powerful stuff. Innovation is being touted as the solution for nonprofit organization sustainability and the cure for many of the world’s social problems. In the last few years, those of us who focus on using innovation to improve the lives of others have seen an increasing emphasis on something called “social innovation.”

What is it? The most commonly cited definition comes from the Stanford Graduate School of Business Center for Social Innovation. “A social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than current solutions. The value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals.”

Put more simply, a social innovation is an idea that works for the public good.

What methods can we use, as individuals or organizations, to contribute to social innovation? To answer that question, it’s helpful to first explore some basic ideas about innovation itself.

What Is “Innovation”?

Much of what’s been written about innovation comes from the world of business. Even so, it has applicability across all kinds of fields and areas of interest. James Dyson, founder of the Dyson Company (of that popular innovative vacuum fame) offers this quick formula: Creativity + Iterative Development = Innovation.

Scott Berkun, author of the book The Myths of Innovation, gets admittedly cranky when asked to define “innovation.” He feels the word has been so “used and abused” at this point that it’s nothing more than a “filler word, without meaningful intent.”

He suggests “dedicating yourself to problem-solving, since that’s what most people who earn the title ‘innovator’ were trying to do.” When pushed, he offered this brief definition: “Innovation is significant positive change.”

I can go with that. How about you?

Are We Innovative in Our Work?

Since those pleasant days with my Easy-Bake Oven, my interests in innovation have expanded dramatically. Today, I work as an applied social scientist and technology director. I’ve worked in both nonprofit and for-profit settings in the heart of Silicon Valley, and I’ve had the pressure of having “innovation” in my professional title in some of those positions. Basically, the inspiration and expectation to act innovatively is all around me.

My work environment supports thinking about innovation. I’m encouraged to bring innovative ideas into every level of planning and execution. I am, in fact, often required to explain the innovative aspects of our work and provide evidence to back that up to potential funders and partners.

If you don’t have that kind of systemic support in your setting, ask yourself these three questions.

  1. Do I surprise myself sometimes by coming up with a new or creative approach to a familiar task?
  2. Do I enlist the support of colleagues to “break out of the box” once in a while just to see what happens?
  3. Do I apply principles of continuous improvement to my work because I believe there can always be more successful ways to achieve something?

If you can answer “yes” to these questions, you are already acting innovatively. If you can’t answer “yes,” well…then try these things out. They will make your life more interesting.

Does My Work Environment Support a Culture of Innovation?

Being instructed to be innovative is a little bit like being told to be spontaneous. It’s not something that can be forced. But it can be fostered.

First, people need a safe environment to think innovatively, to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from the insights they gain (an “it’s OK to fail if it teaches us something” strategy).

Second, innovative work environments often promote both internal and external efforts. These can encourage new ways of thinking.

Finally, collaborative environments integrate “innovation goals” into all aspects of the environment and invite all staff to participate. These can relate to individual, organizational, strategic or mission-related goals.

For example, an individual goal might be to learn a new skill or take a training that opens up possibilities for doing one’s work in new and better ways. An organizational goal might be to build a stronger culture for creativity and experimentation. A strategic goal might be to map out some new ways to be “top-of-mind” within your field. Mission-related goals might involve developing innovative ways to reach more people and have a greater impact.

Four Methods for Social Innovation

By fostering creative, innovative environments, organizations set the stage for pursuing social innovation goals. Ideas for social innovation can also be developed through specific methods. The four explored here are among those that have shown greatest success.

Method 1. Competitions

From social entrepreneurship-themed hackathons to government issued challenges for better ways to detect earthquakes, the competition method often generates the most buzz.

These kinds of competitions inspire individuals and teams to brainstorm a solution to the problem you present, and encourage participation by offering incentives and recognition. But keep in mind that generating ideas is often the easy part. Implementation is difficult.

Once you select an idea, your organization will have to work out the logistics of building on that concept. In order to make this method work, your organization will need people capable enough to execute the idea, and committed enough to make it work over the long haul.

Method 2. Participatory

This is a collection of methods that focus on creative ways to gather different perspectives on issues, problems or possible solutions. It involves inviting local viewpoints, particularly from those who are in need of services or support.

While this method can involve simply having a conversation, it often relies on creative methods of expression to share ideas and knowledge. Think photography, filmmaking, performance or storytelling.

For example, an intern seeking to help the women weavers of Rwanda connect their wares to the outer world asked the women to document their lives and aspirations with a camera and draw pictures of what success looked like. This participatory process helped the women see what was important and valuable to them rather than having someone outside the community make assumptions about their needs. Through this process of creation, the participant stakeholders can share their unique perspectives in identifying problems and brainstorm possible solutions that spark social change.

Try the 5 Whys

One way to build questions that help develop multiple perspectives is to use “The 5 Whys” technique. You ask a participant a question and use the answer to form the basis of the next question. You repeat this process until you have 5 answers—the usual number of iterations by which an answer or conclusion is suggested.

  1. Name a problem you are having.
  2. Why is it happening?
  3. Why is that happening?
  4. And why is that happening?
  5. And why is that happening?

Try it with a problem you’re having and see how it works for you.

Method 3. Lateral learning

With this method, social innovation is driven by looking carefully at different people’s views about what isn’t working. You use strategies to gain additional information on, for example, a program’s success, identifying practices that can improve outcomes or setting some new directions to evaluate or define impact.

For this method to work best, you need to be able to conduct basic empirical research. This allows you to understand the perspectives of different stakeholders and the context of relevant social issues. You can use a survey to conduct lateral learning, and this is a useful approach when you’re reaching out to a lot of individuals. However, interviewing people in various roles within a program or organization will generate more in-depth information.

This strategy values the search for different perspectives and new sources of information among peers within an organization or community, not from outside “experts.” You talk to people about the problems they are having and what the sources of those problems are. Once you understand the problems and their underlying causes, it’s easier to develop innovative solutions that push beyond the traditional approaches already in use.

Keep in mind that while lateral learning involves empirical research, it isn’t typically rigorous enough to be considered scientific.

Method 4. Building on the scientific evidence

I have always been interested in new technology, how to make things better or how to do things differently. But I was also interested in the evidence—show me what solution works the best. In my earliest efforts, for example, tests quickly showed this 7-year-old that the regular oven was far superior to the Easy-Bake. I never looked back.

And that’s why using the evidence is my favorite method for social innovation. It’s what led to me to sociology as a way to use science to understand the world and make it a better place. It also led to my eventual interest in translational research—the goal of bringing the best of research to practice.

This is the method most typically used with health-related social innovation. People in laboratories, clinical research settings and behavioral research settings (such as ETR) conduct rigorous research to see what works and report their findings in the professional literature. Providers then know exactly what they should do, right?

Actually, not exactly. Often that research doesn’t make it out to health practitioners on the front line, or to those charged with implementing evidence-based programs, such as educators in teen pregnancy prevention.

That’s why science is such a great pathway to use innovative technology to support social innovation. First, you identify health-related research that has demonstrated effectiveness. Then you develop an innovation that brings the findings of that research into practice more broadly.

For example, start-up digital therapeutics company Omada Health took research on diabetes prevention that was originally funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and which resulted in their Diabetes Prevention Program lifestyle intervention. Omada used that to create an online social network-based translation of the intervention. Building a technology-based implementation of a prevention program allowed the effective methods identified in the original research to reach many more people. Plus, for those of us who like these tech things, it’s just a way cooler package for the intervention.

Partnering to Make It Happen

If you or your organization doesn’t feel qualified to approach social innovation through translational research, consider pairing with another organization. ETR, an organization with a long history of performing rigorous scientific behavioral research, has partnered with the start-up I work for, dfusion, a small business dedicated to creating innovative, science-driven behavioral health and prevention solutions.

This strategic partnership has produced two projects to date. The first is the Blended Reducing the Risk program. Reducing the Risk is a research-proven approach to pregnancy and STD/HIV prevention for high school students. We created a flipped and blended-learning version of the program. In this innovative approach, students spend homework time watching video content that reviews didactic learning. Then, when they’re in the classroom, they’re practicing skills and doing activities with classmates that build healthy peer norms.

We’ll be evaluating this version to see how effectively the blended-learning approach translates into practice.

Our other project is called 3T: Tune In, Turn On & Turn Up. This is a self-delivered, smartphone-app-based, sex-positive HIV/STI intervention. It’s specifically geared toward black men ages 14 to 18 who identify as gay, bisexual or same-gender-loving. It’s been adapted from ETR’s Promoting Sexual Health program, a curriculum for young adults that adds to safer sex instruction the component of improved sexual experience.

In each of these projects, dfusion is providing innovation through the use of technology and adaptation. These tools help us translate research into easy-to-use resources that can be widely disseminated and have the potential to make a difference in the health of young people. That’s social innovation!

If you want more information on how you can bring innovation or social innovation to your organization, I hope you’ll reach out to dfusion via our website or contact me directly.

Tamara Kuhn, MA, is Research Scientist & Director of Technology at dfusion. She can be reached at or 831-440-2162.

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