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What Does Social Innovation mean?

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“Innovation” has long been a buzzword in the philanthropic sector, applied to a wide variety of approaches and initiatives that sometimes fit one of the many definitions of innovation and sometimes do not. Our interviews demonstrated that funders do not always operate with a similar understanding of what characterizes an innovative social change approach. For our purposes, a social innovation is “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than present solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”  Innovation can take the form of new programs, products, laws, institutions, ideas, relationships or patterns of interaction, and it is often a mix of many of these. But perhaps more importantly, the term also describes the process of generating, testing, and adapting these novel solutions, which is inherently exploratory and uncertain.

With uncertainty and unpredictability comes an even greater need for strategic learning as an innovation is conceptualized, designed, and implemented. As defined by the Center for Evaluation Innovation, strategic learning is the:

Use of data and insights from a variety of information-gathering approaches—including evaluation— to inform decision making about strategy. Strategic learning occurs when organizations or groups integrate data and evaluative thinking into their work and then adapt their strategies in response to what they learn. Strategic learning makes intelligence gathering and evaluation a part of a strategy’s development and implementation—embedding it so that it influences the process.

A strategic learning approach to decision-making and action acknowledges the reciprocal relationship between strategy and evaluation: that what gets evaluated should be related to and informed by the organization’s strategies, and that evaluation should feed into the development and refinement of strategy. When conceived of and implemented in this way, the organization is better able to continuously learn, grow, adapt, and change in meaningful and effective ways.

Although this learning loop is important for all kinds of social change efforts, it is an indispensable part of social innovation. Without it, decision makers and implementers lack crucial information about what patterns and pathways are emerging that require adaptation. Because innovation happens amidst uncertainty, decision makers and implementers often feel their way forward, testing an approach, reflecting on what seems to be happening, abandoning what doesn’t seem to work, and focusing in on what seems to be taking hold. But few evaluation approaches are well-suited to support this kind of trial and error, and in fact, many work against it.

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Author’s Profile: Puneet Kumar is the Managing Partner of eGreens AP Consulting India LLP. He is an accomplished professional helping large sized companies manage their wp & Sustainability needs, right from strategy development, on ground implementation to reporting and audit across the value chain. 

He has over 1500 followers on LinkedIn & you may connect with him at https://in.linkedin.com/in/puneetkumar123. For more details on this subject connect @www.e-gap.in / puneet@e-gap.in

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