Social Innovation: A New Development Priority?

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Social innovation seems to be emerging as a new development priority where “social entrepreneurs,” both for-profit and non-profit, are being called upon to assist governments in delivering basic services and enhancing access to information. But unlike the now seemingly old “public-private partnerships,” social innovation is also fostering new solutions to deliver the goods (or improve quality) to those who are sitting at the bottom of the pyramid.

It is here where ICTs and technology-driven entrepreneurs can play a crucial role. As an example,  last year the Obama Administration launched a Social Innovation Fund that awarded fifty million USD to US social innovators. And earlier this year, the European Union launched its own social innovation initiative.

There are indeed plenty of social innovators out there currently supporting the development of mobile applications in many core development areas. And many of them are either based in developing countries or are working in poor countries tackling the large development gaps that still exist and persist. This is perhaps the truly “innovative” angle of social innovation which clearly differs from the work of large multi-nationals engaged in CSR or making supply chain investments in less well-off countries. The UN Global Compact could quickly fall into this category,

Some ideas that could be highlighted today include:

  • Until recent innovation was taking place mostly in industrialized countries. But thanks in part to new ICTs and new networks,  developing countries are now able to join this exclusive club. The so-called emerging countries (BRICs et al.) are now generating plenty of  innovations and innovative solutions that are specifically geared towards usability in poorer countries (for example, cars, fridges, cell phones, netbooks, medicines but also business models, smart small enterprises, etc.)
  • There is no doubt that the Internet and Free/Open Source Software  (FOSS) has played a role here, But the mere presence of a  sophisticated body of knowledge available on the Net is not sufficient condition to generate innovation at the local level. Countries also need to have the human capacity to grasp and understand such knowledge to be able to improve it and thus innovate.
  • Synergies and partnerships between the public, private and research sectors need to be promoted, especially if the focus is on social innovation.
  • Another vibrant area where social innovation is happening, this time even in LDCs and LICs, relates to mobile applications that address some of the social and economic gaps in these set of countries. There are already quite a few NGOs and small entrepreneurs working in developing mobile applications that target agriculture, health, education, oversight and monitoring of the environment and electoral processes, for example. This is on the ground social innovation that takes advantage of the pervasiveness of mobile technologies in the developing world. As we are aware, this is the first time in history that a technology spreads so fast to so many people in so many countries around the globe.
  • Scalability is a critical challenge faced by many of these social innovators. Scaling up initiatives to reach not hundreds of thousands but millions of people remains a daunting task. It is here where both the public sector and the “traditional”  private sector (national and international) could play an important role.

Cheers, Raúl

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