Social innovation is a big word. A big but important word.
It has a tendency to be a hypothetical yet aspirational jargon, especially for those who are still analyzing it in classrooms. Another big word which we want social innovation to be is the word “Sustainable”—another aspirational concept that we all want to achieve. Of course for those who are already on the ground and have actually experienced what these words mean, the terms for you are far from lofty. But to those who are still deciding how to get into the field, I sense the growing interest to decode this intangibility.
So while the best way is really to just do it and get your hands dirty, let me just say my two cents about this thing we are trying to achieve. One need not look far. For sustainable social innovation to happen, you have to start by empowering people. It is the strongest foundation of any initiative. Despite how cliché it sounds, I noticed how many can get caught up in the revelry of amazing innovations but overlooking this basic principle. Yes, there are groundbreaking solutions generated by iOS apps that alleviate poverty, SMS systems that connect farmers to markets, nanotechnology that makes any water source potable. But the key to all these solutions are people who are empowered to use them, and if possible, be the creators of them.
No fancy social innovation idea will work if there are no insatiably driven people to move ideas forward. There are stories of great ideas that have not flown because they do not directly address issues of the community. The best solutions are embraced by people who are empowered and engaged with the mission. I also believe that the best solutions for a community’s problems must come from the community itself. Before we jump into our drawing boards and scribble mind maps for a plan for sustainable change, we have to activate that very crucial art and skill of listening to what our target community really needs. One has to listen, and by listening, one empowers. By empowering, one is driven to be a stakeholder in his or her own future, and the future of his or her community. Empowerment forms that person with an insatiable desire to make society better, and that power has a multiplier effect in his/her circle of influence. Imagine if you empower just that one person in the village of a developing country you are trying to help. That person will blaze a trail, and you would have lesser challenges making your desired change happen. Scaling social innovation is most effective by empowering people.
Always put people first. Listen and empower people, and you have the groundwork for sustainable social innovation that will change the world.