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  • Jeroo Billimoria

Characteristics of Social Innovators

Characteristics of Social Innovators

In this blog, I outline the distinctive characteristics of social innovators. These are characteristics based on my observations across various teams and organisations with which I have worked. I share them here and, in the spirit of co-creating the process of conceptualising a social innovation ecosystem, I have included a survey link at the end of the blog to encourage your feedback. We hope to follow up this blog by crafting a sector quiz and building a social innovation sector of like-minded people from all walks of life, together.

So read away and hopefully, you will find yourself a community!

Am I a social Innovator? Who is a social innovator? What does it mean to be a social innovator?

These are some of the questions I explore as I try to unpack the social innovation sector to conceptualise the collective establishment of a social innovation ecosystem.

Social innovators are traditionally regarded as the architects of change, the visionaries who confront social challenges with a sense of purpose and a determination to make the world a better place. They are individuals, organisations, or groups who seek innovative solutions to address our pressing social, environmental, or economic issues.

Those who consider themselves social innovators recognise that conventional approaches may not work in tackling complex problems. They challenge the status quo, seeking alternative pathways forward. Social innovators want to develop solutions that are not only effective but also sustainable and inclusive. They are committed to engaging with stakeholders, collaborating across sectors, and leveraging resources creatively to maximise impact.

While these are all important attributes, I believe that social innovators are essentially defined by a specific set of characteristics. At the root of these characteristics is their belief that social innovation that has the greatest impact and leads to sustainable positive change is that which is driven and led by local communities.

Governments, funders, corporations, NGOs, and other institutions that support and understand this view are integral parts of an enabling social innovation ecosystem, as described in my last blog. This ecosystem is vital for the impact of the work of social innovators and to enable their solutions to have the maximum effect, bringing lasting change to communities.

My list of distinctive Social Innovator Characteristics

Empowerment and Inclusivity:

Social innovators work with communities that have historically been marginalised, excluded, oppressed, or disenfranchised. Their work is critical to enabling individuals and communities to empower themselves and actively participate in decision-making processes within systems that have traditionally excluded them. Social innovators champion diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of their work and lives, centering the voices of marginalised groups to ensure that they are heard and valued.

Local Proximity

Social innovators are characterised by their proximity to specific issues and/or their respective communities. They are often locals themselves, sharing a direct and lived experience with the social challenges affecting communities. This shared identity encompasses community characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc., as well as a shared geographical context. Due to this immediate proximity, social innovators gain a profound understanding of the needs and challenges faced by their local communities, along with the contextual and systemic constraints influencing them.

Consequently, they can envision a more promising future from the perspective of local communities and are well-equipped to comprehend what is necessary for achieving this vision. Whether affiliated with mission-led organisations, whether for-profit or non-profit, employing market-led approaches, or functioning as activists within community-led and community-based organisations, these innovators leverage their local attributes and skills to pioneer novel approaches to meeting community needs. Through these diverse avenues, they foster opportunities for community participation and representation, ensuring that individuals within the community can actively engage and feel valued in decision-making processes.

Collaborative Leadership

Social innovators have a “we” mindset and demonstrate a strong ability to build and maintain partnerships across diverse stakeholder groups. They leverage collective expertise and resources to amplify their impact. To achieve this, they emphasise an inclusive and participatory decision-making process, while facilitating effective communication and knowledge-sharing. Because of this collaborative process and connection with various stakeholders, social innovators know when to share the limelight and give credit where credit is due.

Creative, Innovative Problem-Solving

Social innovators have a strong ability to identify innovative and scalable solutions within their respective communities. By analysing complex issues and identifying their root causes, they fill gaps that governments, funders, civil society stakeholders, and other actors are unable to reach. Their innovative solutions creatively adapt and iterate solutions based on feedback, contextual constraints, and changing circumstances. Because of their strong understanding of the needs of their communities, their innovative approaches are often much more impactful. Research shows that organisations led by local, social innovators are stronger than those led by external leaders.

Holistic Systems Approach

Social innovators adopt a systems thinking mindset, recognising that social, economic, and environmental factors are all interconnected. They design solutions that address multiple dimensions of a problem, understanding the complex interlinkages ranging from the root cause of a problem to downstream challenges. Because of this holistic lens, they can anticipate and mitigate any unintended consequences of interventions.

Balancing Risk and Resilience

Social innovators, by definition, work in complex environments. Their understanding of the communities and environments allows them to take calculated risks to pursue innovative solutions and challenge the status quo by pushing boundaries. At the same time, they demonstrate resilience in the face of setbacks and challenges, embracing failure as a learning opportunity. They understand that these “failures” are opportunities to improve future efforts and continue the innovation process.

Strong Personal Integrity

Lastly, social innovators typically uphold strong personal principles that are rooted in people and the planet, stemming from their shared experiences with communities and their understanding of the interdependence between communities and the earth. These include values like transparency, accountability, ethics, and fairness that social innovators tend to intentionally work towards exemplifying in their work and their personal lives. This means that social innovators are usually known for “walking the talk” and for ensuring that they incorporate integrity and honesty in all interactions and decisions.

For example, social innovators will responsibly pay their fair share of taxes to ensure that these funds can be equitably used by governments for public good. Social innovators will also proactively buy local products, including locally grown agricultural products because they are adamant about reintroducing local economic and sustainability dynamics at the local community level. Thus, social innovators follow the norms of responsible citizenship while encouraging others around them to do the same.

These characteristics are not exhaustive, and I acknowledge the possibility of having overlooked some. Therefore, I kindly request you to take this survey, indicating and ranking which of these characteristics you consider most important in a social innovator. If there’s anything I missed, please add it. Your opinions on this topic are also highly appreciated.

Thank you for reading this blog.

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1 Comment

Mar 02

Social innovators are those who carve solutions out of the very problems itself, they effectuate outcomes from available resources and have urge and empathy to help not only humans but other creatures of the planet as well.

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