“Social innovation is the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress.” – Stanford Centre for Social Innovation
Today, more and more millennials with outstanding academic and professional backgrounds are turning to social innovation to solve some of the toughest developmental problems facing us. Governments especially in emerging economies like India are creating policies and conducive environments for social innovators to incubate their ideas into path-breaking solutions.
Why is social innovation different?
Let’s look at some hypothetical examples.
A maid comes to your home every morning. Over the time, you realize that her situation is no different from millions of women from disadvantaged sections of the society- A husband who doesn’t earn, 3-4 children with the last one being a boy, and a precarious financial position that leaves hardly any income for education or higher needs of life.
The conventional solution to the problem: Offering monetary and material help to her as and when required. Maybe a nonprofit helps her apply for a job in the formal sector and this leads to an increase in her income.
Social innovation for the problem: A social innovator will dig deeper to analyse the maid’s spending habits and what are her major areas of spending. Healthcare for family tops the list. The innovator will design a digital wallet which can be used for healthcare and buying medicines. Further, the wallet allows her to save money safely for other contingencies.
The social innovator did not just create a digital wallet for the sake of it. She empathized with the maid. The solution will not only help the maid protect her income from an abusive husband but also help her use her money wisely.
Orphans in India face the most deplorable conditions. Poor lighting, cramped accommodation, regular violence as a means of discipline instead of proper child behaviour methods are just some examples of poor infrastructure at orphanages. This is all exacerbated by the lack of well-trained staff who can treat helpless homeless children with empathy.
Most institutional orphanages are overcrowded and dilapidated, some rife with corruption, neglect and abuse. Even when managed by people with good intentions, orphanages often lack the necessary funds, resources and knowledge to properly provide for the children in their care.
The conventional solution to the problem: Pushing the children into a competitive mainstream education system and offering them for adoption.
Social innovation for the problem: Orphaned children are greatly in need of care and protection, as they are most susceptible to poverty, child labour and child trafficking. These children come from broken families, some have seen the deaths of their parents and have been on a receiving end of hatred. Orphaned children come with a heavy emotional baggage which needs to be handled with love, care and understanding.
A social innovator will look at this issue with empathy and design a pedagogical intervention that will include counselling, training in life skills and various vocational courses to make them self-sufficient instead of just pushing them into the competitive educational system. The intervention will look at employing teachers who can teach and bring about a holistic development in the children and also help the children in securing educational loans, scholarships for further education.
The innovator’s goal here will be to condition and prepare the children to face their lives ahead with confidence and mental strength.
Rural School Children
A school is set up in a village for the children from rural areas who hail from BoP families to study. Thrusting books in their hands, expecting them to study and score marks won’t make them competitive going ahead.
The conventional solution to the problem: Hiring more teachers to teach curriculum and building more classrooms.
Social innovation for the problem: A social innovator will look at the core issue here. Children in rural areas generally lack an interest in going to school. Hailing from poor families, they are introduced to working for their daily bread and so, have never been conditioned for schooling. Instead of just pushing and urging the children to go to school, the social innovator will introduce digital learning. She will design interactive learning content and make it fun to learn from.
The Need for Empathy
“Real social innovation comes from immersing oneself in the context in which we want to work and that we want to change. Social innovation requires the full development of empathy with the context in which we want to make a difference.” – Richard Hull, Director of the Master’s Program in Social Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths at the University of London
Empathy provides a “human-centred” focus on design thinking while innovating. It’s the link between the person designing the new product or solution and the end-user. By starting with empathy, the innovator can live and relate to the core issues of the users and therefore create multifaceted solutions that solve the problem holistically.
Social innovators analyse a socio-economic issue from a human angle and build a solution that is rooted in empathy for the end-user.