By Darius Graham, Director, Social Innovation Lab
Whether in business or in the social impact sector, it is common to think of innovation as a breakthrough, disruptive idea rooted in new technology. Perhaps it brings to mind the Model T, the iPhone or a polio vaccine.
This view of innovation as the height of creativity, a stroke of genius or a state of brilliance to be sought and possessed by the best and brightest among us, provides only a limited view of what innovation is and who can claim it.
Recently in the social impact sector, conversations have moved from discussions of social innovation (creating solutions to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions) to inclusive innovation. This concept of inclusive innovation recognizes that innovation, especially in our sector, can come from anywhere and from anyone — not just those traditionally with access to funding or education, which is typically viewed as the pathway to innovation.
This inclusive approach to social innovation recognizes that an individual studying a particular issue may devise a creative solution to a problem, but also that a person suffering from that problem who may have no formal training on the issue but notably the lived experience, may also offer a creative solution.
Inclusive innovation recognizes as innovators both the individual who creates a smartphone app connecting people to rides in neighborhoods lacking reliable public transportation, as well as the individual who organizes a neighborhood carpool system to do the same.
When we use the language of innovation in a way that denotes only an ingenious breakthrough or eureka moment that happens in a lab or boardroom by people with certain credentials, we leave out many others who we may not see or who may not see themselves as innovators.
Thus the problem is twofold. First, the general language around social innovation has certain connotations of pedigree, education, and expertise. Second, those who are directly affected by an issue or are closer to the issue may not see themselves as having the credentials to offer a creative solution.
In a world where so many challenges exist and so many people are in need, we as a sector should be deliberate and thoughtful in the way we identify and celebrate social innovation and social innovators.
When we recognize something as a social innovation or someone as a social innovator, we are, deliberately or not, including some to the exclusion of others. I’ve witnessed how the language of social innovation can lead some to question whether they are in or out. When recruiting applicants for the Social Innovation Lab at Johns Hopkins University, one of the most common questions I get is some version of, “Is my idea innovative enough?”
Ashoka’s slogan, “Everyone a changemaker” offers a model for how we can think about inclusive social innovation. Reflecting on this mission in a piece for the Innovations journal, Ashoka founder Bill Drayton wrote:
The millennia when only a tiny elite could cause change is coming to an end. A generation hence, probably 20 to 30 percent of the world’s people, and later 50 to 70 percent, not just today’s few percent, will be changemakers and entrepreneurs. That world will be fundamentally different and a far safer, happier, more equal, and more successful place.
“Anyone an innovator” should be the unifying mission of our sector. A mission that leads us to empower the innovation potential of individuals and invest in organizations like Hero Lab and Mission: Launch that actively engage and celebrate that potential. This mission can help us create a world where anyone feels empowered to use his or her experience and background — whether rooted in academic study, life experience, or some mix of both — to offer a new vision of how we address social challenges.