Social innovation and system entrepreneurship

3.1 Social innovation—introduction to transforming complex systems

3.2 Social innovation—what is social innovation?

This motion graphic captures what social innovation is—in under four minutes! It’s a great video to communicate the kind of change efforts that are focused on the root causes of big, complex problems. And if you’re one of those people (like many of us) who work in these kinds of areas, but you can’t seem to get your family and friends to understand what it is that you do, this motion graphic will help!

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3.3 Social innovation—defining social innovation

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Transcript for " Defining social innovation" video (PDF) 

In this segment, you'll learn hear how Frances Westley at the Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR) defines social innovation in a very specific way. Considered a global expert on social innovation, Westley's definition sets you up for the four segments that follow, where you'll learn about different ways that social innovations can be identified, categorized, and assessed. Throughout these segments, keep in mind that social innovations may be formed and evolve in a variety of ways. Categorizing social innovations by predominant characteristics is useful to help understand individual elements, but a high impact social innovation is rarely, if ever, just one element. Rather, it is often creative combinations of elements; you'll be introduced to the important concept of bricolage, which explains this further. Watch for examples of how innovations intervene at different scales or across scales in systems. And pay close attention to new thinking about opportunities for systemic change that exist through working to shift policies, laws, cultural beliefs, and resources in new directions.

In addition to the preceding segment, you can download the paper The Social Innovation Dynamic by Frances Westley (PDF).

3.4 Social innovation—social innovation as a product

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Transcript for "Social Innovation as a product" video (PDF) 

In this segment, Frances uses the examples of the Registered Disability Savings Plan and the Grameen Bank to show how innovations can directly challenge dynamics that are causing the problem. As you watch, consider the innovation on which you're currently working. What systemic relationships it is trying to shift?

3.5 Social innovation—social innovation as a program

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Transcript for "Social Innovation as a program" video (PDF) 

Many transformative innovations start as programs attempting to address particular localized problems. Here, we study one such specific example which evolved into an innovation that made shifts in the larger system. There were particular emergent elements that allowed it to effectively scale up. When you consider your current work, are there opportunities you can see that are similar to those raised in this segment? Do you have the access and relationships to do something with those opportunities? Or are you connected to others who do? Think about these questions as you work through the rest of this unit.

If you're interested, you can find out more about Tostan.

3.6 Social innovation—social innovation as a process

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Transcript for "Social Innovation as a process" video (PDF) 

This segment looks at social innovation as a process. Using examples from Canada and Brazil, it highlights some of the most valuable things that emerged through successful innovative processes. As you watch, consider what your role might best be as part of a transformative process. Remember that there are many elements in a process, and the real innovation is how they work together.

3.7 Social innovation—social innovation as a platform or project

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Transcript for "Social Innovation as a platform or project" video (PDF) 

Here, we dig into examples of social innovations as platforms. Think about the various categories you've learned about: does your work have a tendency to fit within one category or another? Are there different or additional categories of social innovation that you think you should also consider incorporating into your change strategies? Keep all this in mind as you view this segment and work through the upcoming activities.

In this segment, Frances makes a brief reference to SIG—or Social Innovation Generation—as a platform. This national partnership existed between The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, the University of Waterloo, the MaRS Discovery District, and the PLAN Institute started from 2007 until 2015. 

3.8 Social innovation—the Barefoot College example

View this engaging TED talk to learn about Barefoot College, which has been widely praised as highly innovative. In the segment that follows, you'll be led through an exercise to analyze the social innovation in this example and to practice categorizing the various elements.

3.9 Social innovation—where’s the innovation?

3.10 Social innovation—creating an innovation inventory

3.11 Social innovation—finding the phases

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Transcript for "Social Innovation - finding the phases" video (PDF) 

You saw this segment (and the one which follows) earlier in the Seeing and describing systems course. At that point, we were using the adaptive cycle to help us better understand systems. But we come back to it here in order to better understand social change efforts that you are interested in, the implications for social innovation, and, a little later, the implications for the social innovator and his/her role. 

3.12 Social innovation—placing an initiative on the adaptive cycle

3.13 System entrepreneurship—agency

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Transcript for "System Entrepreneurship - agency" video (PDF) 

Here, you'll begin to learn about the role of the individual who wants to work specifically for system change, and the difference between social entrepreneurs and what we call institutional entrepreneurs or system entrepreneurs. Both types of actors are necessary for significant, durable change; but their roles are different. If you want to create change in the whole system, it's important to understand the critical role and strategic activities of the system entrepreneur.

You can learn more about the examples provided at: Transition Network, and  Nesta.

3.14 System entrepreneurship—adaptive cycle phases

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Transcript for "System Entrepreneurship - adaptive cycle phases" video (PDF) 

The role of the system entrepreneur focuses on different types of activities at each phase of the adaptive cycle. Here, you’ll find out what these change agents are paying attention to at the different stages. After viewing this video, be sure to download the .pdf document, below, which provides more detailed information on the various roles and activities of the system entrepreneur.

System entrepreneurship—adaptive cycle phases (PDF)

3.15 System entrepreneurship—skills inventory

3.16 System entrepreneurship—what makes a promising innovation?

3.17 System entrepreneurship—reconciling paradox

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Transcript for "Reconciling paradox" video (PDF) 

To be effective system entrepreneurs, we need to appreciate and work with diverse viewpoints. An important part of this is recognizing our own shadow—or nemesis—and learning to understand the social change value of challenging our own perspectives and developing empathy for the perspectives of others. As we've discussed before, in systems work, there is no value in an us vs. them stance. We must work to find common ground where aspects of multiple perspectives and priorities can co-exist, and collaborate to champion big change at a system level. In this segment, and in the nemesis exercise that follows, we'll examine this challenging aspect of being an effective system entrepreneur.

3.18 System entrepreneurship—nemesis exercise

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Transcript for "Nemesis exercise" video (PDF) 

Now you have a chance to explore further these ideas of reconciling paradox through a short, but potentially impactful, exercise that Frances will lead you through. You'll need a piece of paper, a pen, and some reflective time for this activity.

3.19 System entrepreneurship—horns of the dilemma

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Transcript for "Horns of dilemma" video (PDF) 

Complex systems are characterized by paradoxes that are difficult to reconcile. In fact, at first, it can seem impossible! Typically, in any area of our lives and work, there will be two opposite stances or goals or ways of seeing reality that seem irreconcilable and we human beings tend to choose one or the other to value or support. But it's the space between these opposites that is the most fertile ground for social innovation. Can we imagine something new that integrates the good in both of what look like polar opposites? This segment will help you understand something called the horns of the dilemma, and the importance of working to reconcile paradox for system change.

If you want to go further, you can learn more at Organization Studies - Sage Journals.

3.20 System entrepreneurship—wicked questions exercise

System entrepreneurship—wicked questions exercise (PDF)

Now try to identify some of the paradoxes of your problem domain. The trick is to find two positive values which seem irreconcilable. Another approach is to imagine a position on the environment that you find irritating and impossible. Then take the reverse value. Now, turn the negative value into a positive value (how would those that advocate for it describe its worth)? This exercise leads you through the process.

3.21 System entrepreneurship—generative relationships

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Transcript for "System Entrepreneurship - generative relationships" video (PDF) 

As you now know, strategic interconnections are key to creating the conditions for social innovation and shifting complex systems. In this segment, we focus on the human side of those interconnections—the relationships between groups, teams, or individuals working together—and provide you with a tool for assessing the relationships in your partnerships and collaborations.

In this segment, you'll see reference to a new concept called the adjacent possible. Steven Johnson explains the adjacent possible as "a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations."

If you want to learn more about the Generative STAR—along with a suggested exercise you can try out—see Liberating Structures - Generative STAR.

Summing up

If you've completed all three learning modules—Complex problems and systems, Seeing and describing systems, and Social innovation and system entrepreneurship—then by this point, you've begun to see the world, and especially the problems you're interested in, through a different lens. You're beginning to think about complex systems and to see dynamics within the systems you observe and with which you interact. You've learned many new concepts and tools which can help you to approach your work in a more strategic way, and you're developing a new vocabulary with which to interact, share, and continue to learn about these things. The article, Key Words: Building a Language of Systems Change (PDF) summarizes some of the key concepts for you.