The speed of change is faster than ever, and the social and environmental need is reaching a frightening crescendo. These challenges are daunting, yes, but they also offer the right set of circumstances to look at old problems in new ways. This provides precisely the right opportunity for social innovation to emerge. We are at a moment of transition, where we have the opportunity to fix our future. And social innovators are t aking up the challenge in big and small ways around the world.
At the Centre for Social Innovation, home to more than 180 social mission groups, we are in a unique position to reflect on the patterns of innovation. What we’re seeing is incredibly exciting. Here are a few examples:
Social innovation and market transformation
Perhaps the most interesting trend is the myriad of strategies that people and organizations around the globe are using to engage the marketplace. Increasingly there is a hybridization of this space. From corporate social responsibility to social purpose enterprise, we are seeing new ways of doing business that introduce values as a part of their bottom line (e.g. fair trade). We are also seeing new markets being engaged that are fundamentally about values (creative economies, emerging markets, cooperatives). We are seeing existing businesses being outcompeted by new, more values-based replacement businesses (e.g. hybrid cars, organic food). Finally, we are also seeing where advocacy and policy intersect with the market (banning of Bisphenol A in baby bottles, Green Energy Act in Ontario).
We all engage the marketplace in some way. There are ways that we can influence this market every day in how we consume and how we engage our constituency. The secret is to get below the obvious and look at the underlying systems of market engagement to begin to see the opportunities in your own work.
The Internet has fundamentally changed the game. No longer can organizations work in silos. No longer can one group dominate a field. All of a sudden, entire industries are up in the air and having to adapt. But in this chaos there is incredible opportunity. It is the opportunity to connect, to collaborate, and to transform. The web is reinventing the meaning of relationship. From crowd-sourcing to aggregation, from global scale to micro-niche services, we are working together and meeting needs in new ways. Open source thinking is reinventing the means of production. Suddenly we can co-create, share and benefit like never before. And this thinking is filtering into our collaborations, giving us new models, new approaches, greater trust. Suddenly our campaigns can have great impact; we can reach a wider constituency for our message and we can work together faster and more cheaply than ever before.
Web-inspired thinking is about collaboration on the ground, in your work and community. It is about unusual partners who share converging interests with you. It is about listening, trusting, and building connections.
The complementary trend to “thinking global” is, inevitably, the “acting local” trend. Increasingly we are seeing a move back to the local. Local food, artisanal crafts, and local living economies are just the beginning. We are also seeing a public space movement as citizens re-engage their cities. “Place” is more important than ever; it is the meeting ground and cities are where all of the connections between sectors happen. Social, environmental, economic, and cultural all converge in “place,” and this place is where we want to be. This is where we discover how we are all connected.
Our local relationships are the key to our happiness. Network theory is proving this out in academia, but we know in our soul that talking to our local shopkeepers, nodding at a neighbour walking by, conversing with other gardeners – these things bring a harmony to our world. The local reveals our quest for relationships, for beauty and order, and for happiness. This is where we have our greatest strengths.
New ideas for fixing our future
These are simply reflections on where I see the energy and patterns emerging. These trends offer clues about how we can be a part of the solution. Social innovators build solutions. They care about what is wrong, but they also act on what needs to be right. They are tenacious and deeply committed to creating positive change in our world. They try new things out, experiment, fail often, and learn from their mistakes. They are employees, citizens, voters, consumers, decision-makers, builders. They are us, and we can all find ways to fix our future.
Tonya Surman is the founding executive director of the Centre for Social Innovation. She has been creating and leading social ventures since 1987 and has built her body of knowledge around multi-sectoral collaboration and entrepreneurship for social change. She currently co-chairs the Ontario Nonprofit Network and the Social Enterprise Council of Canada.