Is social innovation in need of self-discovery?

In the concluding part of Dr Andrew Curtis and Tara Anderson's series looking at the concept of social innovation globally, they question whether it is time to revise the discourse around this concept.

If you have been reading this blog series and making the assumption that it is anti-social innovation then you could not be further from the truth. As noted at the beginning those of us in the social innovation space need to ask ourselves some critical questions. That’s us included. 

There is a credible and fabulous history of innovation in the not-for-profit sector. The examples are many and mostly have been born out of a sense of justice for those who are being left behind in society or who are disadvantaged one way or another. These innovations have been often totally ignored by governments because they question what the government is doing. 

This is nowhere more clearly the case than with a project called ‘Sanctuary’ in Melbourne, Australia. It’s an integrated housing model for asylum seekers at risk of homelessness – due to the Australian government’s disgraceful and inhumane policies that treat asylum seekers as less than human. And there are many more examples like Sanctuary.

These types of social innovations that have a direct and positive impact on the lives of disadvantaged people are not co-opted by governments or big business precisely because of the reasons for which they exist. And because they exist in a space where there is no market or product to sell. 

Perhaps it is more urgent than ever to recover what social innovation is and what it is not.

This suggests we need to think carefully about how we use language, especially when language can be so easily co-opted and neutralised by those in power.

With such a broad-brush description of social innovation, social enterprise and social entrepreneurship, and the active call now in the public discourse around social innovation to ‘bring it into the mainstream’ and stop it being a ‘cult’, perhaps it is more urgent than ever to recover what social innovation is and what it is not. 

If anything can qualify, then the term becomes vacuous. Or worse, the language of social innovation will be submerged within the language of ‘good capitalism’ - whatever that is. 

Perhaps it is time to recover some original definitions of social innovation and rather than broadening the definition, refocus on some specific language that distinguishes what it is and what it is not. 

This focus needs to identify the intention, effect and outcomes of a social innovation within the context of social justice. This article supports all things ‘social’ including the development of the ‘social economy’, when they benefit the community – or more specifically when social innovations and enterprises provide new approaches to social challenges that have the intent and effect of equality, justice and empowerment. 

Social innovation and social enterprise is its best when it’s operating on the edges.

This requires a revised discourse around social innovation where the focus is on equality, justice and empowerment for those who are disadvantaged or vulnerable in society. Not on savings made for neoliberal political economies where those savings will not be fed back into the community, and not on innovations designed in public services to make staff feel better. 

Rather than being co-opted by people in power, social innovation needs to call into question and critically analyse how people in power can be the cause of disadvantage and suffering in the community, and not be seduced into the mainstream by the lure of money and the ordinary.

Social innovation and social enterprise is its best when it’s operating on the edges, filling in the gaps and creating new ways of addressing social challenges, not unwittingly supporting the status quo. Politicians won’t change the system. People will. 



Dr Andrew Curtis and Tara Anderson are the co-founders and directors of the Dragonfly Collective in Australia.They have written this three-part analysis of social innovation based on their work at the University of Danube & the Centre for Social Innovation in Austria, and a range of other experiences in the UK and Australia.

Photo credit: Tony C Ward