Nesting Social Innovation

“What does social innovation mean?”
“Is my work called social innovation?”
“Is that social innovation?”

These types of questions are asked all the time, showing that definitions for promising ideas can be very useful, but also alienating. Too often, they come across as a value judgment, privileging some ideas and actions over others. But what if it’s not really a competition? More than any one individual piece of work, it might be even more important to consider the relationships between them. There is something about the interconnections between intention, involvement, invention and innovation that are central to social innovation.

Intention: it’s sparked by a moment in time when people become more consciously aware of a problem in a way that there’s no turning back from. They are changed and, as individuals, they now genuinely care about something that is broken in the world. They develop a deep intention; they care – and they sincerely want change to happen.

That intention often leads to new levels of engagement; their growing awareness and emotional connection wants to be translated into action and they feel compelled to DO something. Doing can take a lot of forms – learning more, giving money, volunteering, working in the problem domain. Whatever first (and next) steps mean to them, they move into involvement; they are actively helping change to happen.

To some extent, they are now part of the field, part of working for change, and some will get involved enough to develop more knowledge and experience in this realm. This allows them to creatively experiment with new ways of addressing problems. They are excited by invention; they can now imagine and act on radically different ideas for change.

Eventually, a number of these creative, adaptive entrepreneurs, either individuals or organizations, come to realize that even with some success, the fundamental brokenness that caught their attention in the first place, still lingers – the problem has barely changed at all. It becomes clear that their work is critically important, but alone, it is not enough. And, if possible, they turn their attention to whatever bigger picture elements appear to be keeping problems so frustratingly stuck. They, with others, begin to work for innovation; they step into new spaces to engage with strategies for getting at the root causes of these very complex problems.

Babushka Dolls of SI copy

Babushka Dolls of Social Innovation – image graphic provided by Karen Gomez

I’ve come to understand the necessity and the interdependence of each of these four different. but related, uniquely powerful parts of change-making.  I think of them like the Russian babushka dolls; nested pieces, one inside the other. While each individual piece can stand alone, the full impact is really only possible when they are together.  Social innovation nesting looks something like this; real, lasting innovation at a systems level cannot happen without enough creative invention to demonstrate and prepare the new possibilities. This rarely happens without significant involvement to gain deep understanding in the issue area, which itself will never occur without sparking individuals’ intention, their desire to be part of making change happen. When this interconnectedness is present, the energy of a whole field works for impact – and that can make all the difference.

So I’m really drawn to think about the whole – and, therefore, to holistic questions that unite rather than divide our change efforts; ones that point to the relationships between initiatives and to ‘nesting’ one piece of change work within another.  Rather than questions about what is or is not social innovation, let’s explore if and how this kind of initiative and that type of activity fits within, supports, leverages, communicates with, and connects to a whole web-like strategy, every single piece of which has a role to play in achieving real and lasting change.

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About Cheryl Rose

Cheryl is a Senior Fellow at the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation.

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