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The challenges of our time are increasingly complex and interconnected. The solutions require not just innovation but interaction between many different elements including new business models and financial mechanisms, new relationships that align government, social actors and business and fresh strategies to scale up operations that are fast enough to catch up with the runaway problems we currently face such as climate change.


Incremental improvements are simply not enough; systemic change is called for both in industrialized and emerging economies.


Avaaz, the global online campaigns community is a good example of the new models that are emerging: a relatively small, but highly nimble NGO with massive global reach. Building on years of work of different social movements across the globe and backed by 34 million subscribers, Avaaz is achieving in hours what used to take traditional charities years to accomplish. Recent achievements include new anti-corruption legislation in Brazil, the end of whale meat entering German ports and protecting Maasai territories in Tanzania from tourist hunting zones.

While NGOs are starting to look more like business, governments are (in some cases) becoming more commercially savvy. A good example of this is the UK’s Behavioral Insights Team or Nudge unit, which applies behavioral psychology to achieve unprecedented improvements and cost savings in a range of policy areas including energy efficiency, fraud and healthy lifestyles. In just six months £350m was saved from the public purse using personal text messaging to avoid tax evasion. Taking lessons from industry, governments are now using randomized control testing as a far more robust way of trialing the effectiveness of policy, than the more traditional “finger to the breeze”, pilot studies.

A profound understanding of how we make decisions, how we are affected by peer pressure, our subconscious and ego are just some of the insights now being applied to better achieve public policies and save the tax payer considerable sums along the way.

So, what is the secret to the success of these initiatives? Why do some social innovations end up as real game-changers and others simply tweak at the edges?  These are the questions on the minds of impact investors, foundations, policy makers, social entrepreneurs and even businesses striving for the golden age of shared value – how to do well and do good.

Pathways to Systemic Change, our latest publication in the Social Innovation Antenna series produced by ESADE Business School’s Institute for Social Innovation, identifies five key variables to be considered when trying to grapple with what makes social innovation successful. While there is no “one size fits all” to social innovation, there do appear to be a set of conditions which definitely influence your chances.


Key variables to look out for are: social impact – is this initiative really making a difference to people’s lives?; financial sustainability – does it have a robust business model to ensure survival?; cross-sector collaboration – is it supported by a web of relationships across different actors?; innovation – are the conditions in place for genuine creative destruction and new models to emerge?; and finally does it have the capacity to be replicated and scale its activity in new environments?

Examples of social innovation can be observed through the lens of these five variables, not just to better understand how each initiative operates and identify potential weak spots or opportunities but potentially to filter out the game changers from the rest. Some of the lessons learnt through applying these variables to different innovations are that boundaries between sectors are blurring and new hybrid organizations are emerging. NGOs are becoming more effective in their mission and businesses are striving to achieve social impact as well as financial gains.

As for different types of innovation, open models are one way of scaling up activity, however, they are not necessarily enough to guarantee global uptake of a new idea. Peer-to-peer exchange, on the other hand, is increasingly commonplace and the collaborative economy is a fast growing, dynamic arena for systemic change.

By definition, social innovation is constantly re-inventing itself, breaking boundaries and destroying old ideas. The variables we describe may serve as useful parameters but, by no means should be used as a restrictive model, as thankfully there are many different pathways to choose to bring about the highly desirable systemic change.


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Heloise Buckland is a researcher at the Institute for Social Innovation, ESADE and co-founder of Barcelonya

Anil is founder and former Executive Director of Framework, the charity that runs the Tiimeraiser. He is now Partner at GrantBook, a social purpose business helping Foundation’s become more digitally enabled. Over the course of a decade, he has written, reported and/or reviewed 2,500 grant proposals from both sides of the Grant Seeking and Grant Making ledger. His current area of inquiry is:“what are the skills and capabilities that high performing organizations need to thrive in the digital economy.”

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