Five characteristics of authentic social innovation

I’m a bit uncomfortable with the social entrepreneurship model that I see (mostly) applied in the UK. It’s focussed on the wrong stuff and, more often than not, is neither social nor entrepreneurial. Yes, there’s good stuff out there and lots of good ideas but the majority of systems and funding in place is wrong, misplaced and, frankly, just leaves me feeling a bit uneasy.

There’s lot of reasons for this and I’m not massively interested in expending energy on debating a process I’ve seen fail before. But twenty five years of technology innovation I reckon gives me some insight into this and I can’t understand why people have blindly accepted commercial innovation, incubation and acceleration pathways as suitable for truly social enterprises. They’re not.

So, what I have been doing is putting a lot of thought into what could work. Afterall social innovation is a core component of making public services work better for all of us. This draws on a number of social projects I’m involved with, not least the Active Democracy work and the PublicSectorLaunchpad.

Before designing any kind of system it seems to me that we first need to step back and think about some core cultural traits – for people and systems. When it comes to social innovation I think these are many we could propose, but there are five that stand out for me as critical. Without these the ecosystem (and the people and ideas within the ecosystem) will fail.


Social innovation needs to be driven by values not simply by financial gain and commercial scaling metrics. This opens up to a wider range of ideas, metrics and potential but it should also alert us to the failings of out-dated equity/investment financing models.


Grow, pivot, plummet and fail. These are all valid stages of innovation. Successful social innovation recognises the need to be flexible, allowing for a lean and organic process and accepting that a change of direction and failure are opportunities to improve and learn. Where failure is terminal for an idea, the system retains the memory and the learning and both feedback into the learning cycle and knowledge is stored up to revisit later.


Driven by integrity and authenticity, not ego and power. The former lifts and connects, the latter controls and limits. It’s about doing with, not having power over.


Grasping the germ of an idea, nurturing it through a creative process then sharing, mixing, developing it so products and services can ignite our society and stimulate intellectual interest back into the ideation process.


Innovation is about doing something different, something better. This doesn’t include limiting our thinking by competing with each other for limited space, funding or markets. Clever innovation is open, collaborative and co-creating because sharing expands the boundaries of potential.


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  1. November 12, 2013

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