Defining 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.

Recent Examples of Social Innovation

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Charter Schools

Publicly funded primary or secondary schools that operate free from some of the regulations that typically apply to public schools. Administrators, teachers, and parents thus have the opportunity to develop innovative teaching methods.

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Emissions Trading

A pollution control program that uses economic incentives to reduce emissions. A cap is set on the total amount of a certain pollutant that can be emitted, and permits to pollute are issued to all participating businesses. Those with higher emissions can buy credits from businesses that have reduced their emissions. Over time, the cap is reduced.

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Fair Trade

An organized movement that establishes high trade standards for coffee, chocolate, sugar, and other products. By certifying traders that pay producers a living wage and meet other social and environmental standards, the fair trade movement improves farmers’ lives and promotes environmental sustainability.

How Social Innovation Differs From Social Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise

Although social entrepreneurship and social enterprise have become popular rallying points for those trying to improve the world, social change can happen outside of them. These two notions are positive ones, but neither is adequate when it comes to understanding and creating social change. In fact, social innovation is a better vehicle.

Social innovation focuses attention on the ideas and solutions that create social value — as well as the processes through which they are generated, not just on individuals and organizations.

Social Innovation Drivers

We observe how cross-sector fertilization underlies the three key mechanisms that are driving contemporary social innovation:

  • Exchange of ideas and values
  • Shifts in roles and relationships
  • Integration of private capital with public and philanthropic support

Ultimately, the most difficult and important problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without involving the nonprofit, public, and private sectors.