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Why social innovation must go beyond the social sector

1 September 2015

The article at a glance

The world is facing a series of “wicked problems” – climate change, poverty alleviation, income inequality and persistent societal conflicts. And with …

2015-brainfood-socialinnovation-883x432The world is facing a series of “wicked problems” – climate change, poverty alleviation, income inequality and persistent societal conflicts. And with the search on for new ways to combat them, social innovation – the process of developing and implementing novel solutions to social problems – is central to the ambitions of the corporate and public sectors, as well as the NGO/social sector.

Paul Tracey & Neil Stott
Paul Tracey & Neil Stott

“Social innovation is no longer the preserve of the social sector, it is also one of the most pressing needs for today’s corporate sector,” stresses Paul Tracey, Professor of Innovation & Organisation. And his colleague, Dr Neil Stott, Executive Director of the Centre for Social Innovation, adds that the common misconception about social innovation is that it is all about novelty. “It is about instigating change but that doesn’t have to mean wild big new ideas,” he says. “We are just as interested in the little things, the small but very important details.”

The Centre for Social Innovation already works with Cambridge Social Ventures on some 50 ventures, such as that for DNA Digests, a registered charity that enables the sharing of DNA data by both medical practitioners and the public in order to accelerate the diagnosis and treatment of genetic disease.

It’s evidence, says Stott, of the centre’s commitment to breed a new generation of researchers and practitioners. “The young of today aren’t interested in companies simply pretending to care about matters such as sustainability and social justice – they want to see them make measurable improvements to people’s way of life,” he says. “Corporate social responsibility as a separate arm of a company’s operations is a thing of the past; it has to be integral to their business. As much as anything else, this approach helps to limit business risk. And it is essential to both recruitment and customer satisfaction.”

To further its commitment, the Centre for Social Innovation is introducing a new masters degree in social innovation, an interactive, workshop-led approach with students both working on and learning from collaborative ventures. It is aimed at experienced individuals mid-career as well as those just starting out but, says Stott, “the most important qualification, high academic standards apart, is that they want to make a real difference in the world.”

That doesn’t, however, preclude making money. “Traditionally, social enterprise has been associated with not-for-profit organisations, the so-called third sector. But it matters all the way down to the bottom line. It is no good simply trying to be virtuous.” One multi-nation company which Stott believes has taken this lesson to heart is Unilever. “They are developing products which will make a profit but also do good, such as Lifebuoy, the germ protection soap.”

This approach is not just good business sense but is also expected by the new generation of millennials. He will therefore be “very disappointed” if the Master of Studies in Social Innovation only attracts applicants from the social sector (for whom there are a limited number of bursaries) but he certainly doesn’t expect that to happen. Instead feedback from the corporate sector indicates increasing recognition that social innovation is becoming an everyday factor in business life and there is a need for executives to receive training.

The intention is to have a mixed cohort of students, which will be further boosted by scholarships provided by the 30% Club for corporate women on the programme. And the intake will be international – Stott aims to attract “applicants from parts of the world where just a few years ago no one would even think of going to Cambridge.”

And when they get there, what will they find? First and foremost, “an open environment for critical dialogue”. The teaching will be highly interactive with input from people actively involved in the world of social innovation as well as the course leaders. Here Tracey, Stott and their colleagues will draw on the extensive network of both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs the Centre has already built up, drawn from all ages, backgrounds and sectors.

“But I’m not one for holding up gurus,” says Stott. “This is too important for one or two people to stand out. The intention is that this new programme will help further collaborative work to address the challenges the world faces today.”