Three key things social innovators must do to truly affect the next 25 years

In this piece, written for City Press in the build-up to the 2018 SA Innovation Summit, DGMT Deputy CEO Janet Jobson, addresses aspiring social innovators as she reflects on key aspects that we must get right to make a lasting impact.

1. Bridge the divides that define South Africa

Too often social innovation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_innovation) fixates on products and ideas as ‘quick fixes’ for massive structural challenges. Yes, there is a significant place for technological and product-based fixes – but race, class, gender, and geography remain defining forces in the extent to which a child born today will have the opportunity to fulfil their potential. If we get caught up in our own hype about innovation, we may forget that our innovations will equally be shaped by these dynamics.

A recent example I heard was that of self-driving cars. The major argument for building this technology is to reduce traffic accidents and deaths. But none of these technologies are being developed in bustling, chaotic, developing countries metropolises where the majority of these deaths occur. Ignoring this reality undermines the ultimate intentions of this innovation. Importantly, social innovators must do the work to ensure that they bridge these divides within their own organisations, and not just in their work ‘out there’.

2. True innovation requires generating demand; not just meeting it.

True social innovators have a fine line to walk – they need to be solving challenges that exist beyond the obvious, while not imposing their particular take on the world on vulnerable groups without their consent or active engagement. This requires a particularly high level of emotional intelligence, empathy, curiosity about how different people perceive their challenges, and an ability to respond both to immediate and future needs.

If we give in only to what is obvious, we limit the potential of our innovation. For example, while nutrition has always been a generalised concern, it is only with the galvanising vision of Grow Great – a multi-pronged campaign to achieve a  stunting-free generation by 2030 – that a range of actors from across government, civil society, and the private sector have joined forces. Generating demand for innovations is often the ‘secret sauce’ that is an after-thought to many idea-obsessed innovators.

3. Social innovators must work beyond traditional sectoral boundaries

One of the core assets of social innovators is that they can come from anywhere, but are driven by the common commitment to the public good. Most impactful social innovations, however, live at the intersection of traditional sectoral boundaries. Over the last 25 years, we have many powerful examples of this: it took a protest movement, some lawyers, and some brave doctors to first demand and then import and start administering ARVs to South Africans dying of AIDS. This was a significant social innovation. But it also took courage and commitment for government to step up and innovate a system for affordably sourcing and delivering ARVs for daily use by over 4 million South Africans – more than anywhere else in the world.

If social innovators stick only to their sector, they will miss the big opportunities that lie in collaboration between the competencies of different actors. This is perhaps the greatest possible innovation – to align the purpose and practice of all actors in society. The future of social innovation in South Africa is bright – if we can align the relationships, demand, and collaboration that is needed to tackle the major crises we face. Crises occur when all our current coping strategies fail. This may well be an apt way to describe South Africa in 2018. But it is precisely this crisis that creates the space – and necessity – for social innovators to create new strategies for us to thrive.

This article first appeared in a City Press supplement on 09 September 2018.

If you want to learn more about social innovation, participating in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Ulab is a great opportunity.  The MIT uLab is a free online course offered through EdX that draws and connects participants from all over the world.  

“We live in an age of profound disruption, where something is ending and dying, and something else is wanting to be born. What’s ending and dying is a civilization that’s built on a mindset of maximum me, of bigger is better, and of special interest group-driven decision making that has led us into a state of organized irresponsibility. What’s being born is less clear. It’s a future that requires us to connect with the deeper level of our humanity- to discover who we really are and who we want to be as a society. How can we build the capacity to sense and actualize a future that we feel is possible, we know is possible, but that isn’t quite there yet? That question is at the very heart of this course”.  – Otto Scharmer, MIT