Social Innovation

Social Challenges and the Quest for Sustainability
Business Planning and Managing Resources in Non-Profit Organizations


This training session aims  to  the  collaboratively  understanding  of  a conceptual  baseline  to  address  social  innovation  and entrepreneurship  from  a  common  understanding  based on a diversity of realities and approaches.


  1. Key question
  2. Key words
  3. Substantive part/information
  4. Activities for the reader(s)
  5. Multiple-choice self-assessment test
  6. Links to self-study resources
  7. References

Key question

  • What is social innovation?
  • Why is it useful? What new solutions can it bring?

Key words

  • Social innovation
  • Social entrepreneurship

Substantive part/information

Definition of social innovation

The most difficult and important problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without involving the non-profit, public, and private sectors.

Social innovation is the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging  social and environmental issues in support of a social progress. Social innovations are new ideas that meet social needs, create social relationships and form new collaborations. These innovations can be products, services or models addressing unmet needs more effectively.

Recent examples of Social Innovation:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Fair Trade
    An organized movement that establishes high trade standards for coffee, chocolate, sugar, and other products. By certifying traders that pay producers a fair 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

Although social entrepreneurship has become a popular rallying point for those trying to improve the world, social change can happen outside of them. As a matter of fact, often solutions come from the non-profit, private, and government sectors.

The concept of social innovation focuses on the ideas and solutions that create social value—as well as the processes through which they are generated, regardless of where they are coming from.

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 non-profit, public, and private sectors.

Activities for the reader(s)

Discuss in group about what you’ve read and debate about the following questions:

  • What social innovation can deliver to communities?
  • Where social innovation must base on?

World Cafe Method

The World Café methodology is a simple, effective, and flexible format for hosting large group dialogue.

World Café can be modified to meet a wide variety of needs. Specifics of context, numbers, purpose, location, and other circumstances are factored into each event’s unique invitation, design, and question choice, but the following five components comprise the basic model:

1) Setting: Create a “special” environment, most often modelled after a café, i.e. small round tables covered with a checkered or white linen tablecloth, butcher block paper, coloured pens, a vase of flowers, and optional “talking stick” item. There should be four chairs at each table (optimally) – and no more than five.

2) Welcome and Introduction: The host begins with a warm welcome and an introduction to the World Café process, setting the context, sharing the Cafe Etiquette, and putting participants at ease.

3) Small Group Rounds: The process begins with the first of three or more twenty minute rounds of conversation for the small group seated around a table. At the end of the twenty minutes, each member of the group moves to a different new table. They may or may not choose to leave one person as the “table host” for the next round, who welcomes the next group and briefly fills them in on what happened in the previous round.

4) Questions: each round is prefaced with a question specially crafted for the specific context and desired purpose of the World Café. The same questions can be used for more than one round, or they can be built upon each other to focus the conversation or guide its direction.

5) Harvest: After the small groups (and/or in between rounds, as needed), individuals are invited to share insights or other results from their conversations with the rest of the large group. These results are reflected visually in a variety of ways, most often using graphic recording in the front of the room. The basic process is simple to learn, but complexities and nuances of context, numbers, question crafting and purpose can make it optimal to bring in an experienced host to help.

Each group will have at least one societal need and/or challenge and they have to create a social innovation enterprise.

Multiple-choice self-assessment test

Q1. Which of the following challenges can be addressed by social innovations?

a. Millions of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases
b. Low attendance of girls in school
c. Climate change
d. All the above

Q2. Which of the examples below are solutions to social challenges?

a. Profitable livelihood generation programs for the poor
b. Sustainable farming techniques
c. Health education programs for preventing communicable diseases
d. All of the above

Q3. Social innovations come from individuals, groups or organizations, and can take place,

a. Only in the for-profit sector
b. Only in then not-for-profit sector
c. Only in the public sector
d. In all the three sectors

Q4. In social innovation, which element is most likely to come first?

a. Develop the financial model
b. Understand the barriers to success
c. Identify the social challenge or problem
d. Devise and validate a workable solution

Q5. Among the choices below, the most appropriate definition for a “social entrepreneur” is:

a. An entrepreneur with a very outgoing personality.
b. Someone who develops an innovative answer to a social problem
c. An entrepreneur that depends on social media such as Facebook or Twitter to advertise his products or services.
d. An entrepreneur that works with other business partners.

Links to self-study resources