Three strategies to boost social innovation

Disruptive innovation not only belongs to business and universities; it often emerges from society itself. And there are public policies we can apply to help the growth of these innovative ecosystems

David Murillo

The growth of ecosystems of innovation is complex and can be slowed or halted by diverse social innovation factors. New research from Esade’s David Murillo and co-author Martha Leticia Silva-Flores has explored these obstacles to growth and identified solutions necessary to overcome them. 

The research, published in Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, examined projects in Guadalajara, Mexico, and Barcelona, Spain, in an attempt to establish the common social innovation challenges faced by emerging or expanding ecosystems of innovation.  

The findings reveal three key obstacles: a lack of critical mass (groups of people who achieve social change), fragmentation of efforts, and lack of citizen participation

Social innovation and public policy 

Driving positive societal change requires an element of disruption and the use of unconventional methods. The social innovations (solutions to social needs that improve and strengthen civil society) that drive this change are often shaped by society itself.  

Social innovations are often shaped by society itself

The people, projects, and organizations instrumental in these social innovations evolve into ecosystems that require collaborative cross-sector efforts. To thrive, they need regulations (norms), common practices, and an understanding of cultural meanings, as well as common infrastructure, maintenance, and supply networks. 

The role of public policy in driving the success of these ecosystems is thus vital. Local and regional authorities are ideally placed to provide the structure needed to drive social innovation — but its implementation is relatively new to policymakers.  

The projects driving social change  

To help provide an understanding of how policy can create efficiencies in social innovation and boost the ecosystems surrounding it, Murillo and Silva-Flores studied 13 projects. 

The projects selected (five in Guadalajara and eight in Barcelona) represent typical social innovation systems, each at a different stage of the life cycle. Interviews with 86 participants (entrepreneurs, business owners, investors, government personnel, and members of society) provided the researchers with data-rich case studies of emerging and expanding ecosystems. A review of available literature on the topic offered insight into previous findings. 

This combination of real-world examples and previous research allowed Murillo and Silva-Flores to identify the three main challenges and critical factors affecting the development of social innovation and create practical strategies for policymakers to adopt: 

1. Connecting science with society

The first line of action for achieving social innovation is to link scientific knowledge with local representatives. Creating a bridge between universities, research centers, and local agents can help to apply scientific knowledge to the social problems that need to be resolved. 

Regional customs, capabilities, and resources should be accurately identified to build competencies at a local level. This can help to ensure projects have the capacity to operate with strong social and political outreach. Local connections and robust relationships are key to achieving social innov.ation 

2. Frameworks for action

Fragmented efforts with little collaboration between local projects limit the scope of their impact. Common frameworks are necessary to stimulate social innovation, harness efforts, and identify and connect the complementary skills of organizations within the ecosystem. 

Linking scientific knowledge with local representatives is key for social innovation

Innovation centers acting as intermediaries can harmonize and streamline projects, bringing together innovators, beneficiaries, research centers, and universities to create a regional collective.  

Public innovation policies to promote synergies and tools for measuring the implementation of social innovations, such as the proposed Index of Implementation of Grassroots Product-Oriented Social Innovation, can all help to create strong regional frameworks with a singular focus. 

3. Public participation

The lack of participation by members of the public is a key restraint on developing innovation ecosystems. Their involvement is essential in informing the design and delivery of successful public policies, accelerating social innovation, and boosting ecosystems.  

Involving groups and organizations who are closely linked to the social problem that needs to be solved, with collaborative networks of organizations, companies, universities, and regional authorities, can boost citizen participation and create a culture of co-creation. 

Viable strategies for policy  

By following these lines of action, Murillo and Silva-Flores believe the processes of growth-stage social innovations can be greatly improved. The viability of these proposals has been reported and analyzed in previous studies, and the interactions and connections of the projects examined for this research provide further evidence of success.  

Lack of public participation is a key restraint on innovation ecosystems

Interventions and policies developed in line with these recommendations could boost innovation strategies and development, and help to mitigate the main challenges faced by growing ecosystems of social innovation. 

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