A Closer Look at Social Innovation

Keeva Kase (left) with Pastor Bill Habich (right) at Pollinate Davis.
Keeva Kase (left) with Pastor Bill Habich (right) at Pollinate Davis.

On Saturday the Vanguard interviewed Keeva Kase who flew in from Durham, North Carolina, to participate in the Social Innovation Symposium which Pastor Bill Habicht from the Davis Community Church put together.

One of the unfortunate outcomes was that the concept of “social innovation,” clearly new to a number of people, was met with sarcasm. As one person put it, “I had no idea what ‘social innovation’ could possibly be.  Reading your posts and other posts it’s apparent that other commenters have no idea what social innovation is either.  In fact you state that you need to draft another article to clarify what it is, your words not mine.  We’ve had several Vanguard articles lately about ‘food justice,’ ‘racial justice’ and ‘restorative justice’ among other things so that’s where my innovation justice quip came from.”

But missing from that explanation is a critical point – should new concepts be met with sarcastic comments when the concept is not fully explained or understood, or should there be questions and honest inquiry?

This point is pertinent, particularly when Google Search is at everyone’s hand and one has ready access to Wikipedia, which provides not only a definition but a number of sources. My purpose here will be to explore more fully than the circumstances of Saturday’s article permitted what social innovation is – but also to remind people that Keeva Kase flew out here to participate in an important community discussion and Pastor Habicht spent a lot of his time organizing it. The appropriate response is questions, not sarcasm.

Wikipedia defines social innovations as “new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet the social needs of different elements which can be from working conditions and education to community development and health — they extend and strengthen civil society. Social innovation includes the social processes of innovation, such as open source methods and techniques and also the innovations which have a social purpose — like microcredit or distance learning.”

The Stanford Graduate School of Business opened the Center for Social Innovation in 2000. They define social innovation as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than present solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”

Social Innovation “focuses attention on the ideas and solutions that create social value—as well as the processes through which they are generated, not just the individuals and organizations.” Examples are listed below.

Charter schools: “Publicly funded primary or secondary schools that operate free from some of the regulations that typically apply to public schools. Administrators, teachers, and parents thus have the opportunity to develop innovative teaching methods.”

Emissions Trading: “A pollution control program that uses economic incentives to reduce emissions. A cap is set on the total amount of a certain pollutant that can be emitted, and permits to pollute are issued to all participating businesses. Those with higher emissions can buy credits from businesses that have reduced their emissions. Over time the cap is reduced.”

Fair trade: “An organized movement that establishes high trade standards for coffee, chocolate, sugar, and other products. By certifying traders who pay producers a living wage and meet other social and environmental standards, the Fair Trade movement improves farmers’ lives and promotes environmental”

In a 2013 article in the Harvard Business Review, “Innovating For Shared Value,” the authors demonstrate how major companies like Dow Chemical, hardly considered a bastion of progressive thinking, have reoriented their business as a way to innovate to meet the needs of society while at the same time building a profitable enterprise.

They write, “Corporate leaders have awakened to that fact. They realize that social problems present both daunting constraints to their operations and vast opportunities for growth. But many are struggling to implement the shared value concept.”

However, Keeva Kase is a bit skeptical of these types of social innovations, arguing that when Coca-Cola is introduced at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford as a big partner in the social entrepreneurship movement, “we have to ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a social enterprise? I think that’s an important question.” He said, “Maybe the tent is too big, maybe it’s not big enough.”

Along these lines, Francesco Grisolia and Emanuel Ferragina “challenge the idea that social innovation can constitute an effective strategy to counter-balance the retrenchment of public social provisions.” Examining changes within the Italian healthcare system, they argue, “The call to social innovation, if not embedded within a structural reform of the Italian Welfare state and the health care system, might simply become a convenient buzzword to forward the neoliberal ideology in a time of austerity.”

Again, Mr. Kase has similar concerns. He warned that “it can turn into jargon very quickly,” and that “you want to back up what you’re saying with action, content, and with meaning.”

Francesco Grisolia and Emanuel Ferragina effectively define social innovation as new ideas, whether they be products, service, and/or models that can at the same time meet society’s needs while creating new social relationships. In the ideal setting, these innovations can be considered both good for society as well as capable of enacting greater societal involvement in the provision of social services.

In short, social innovation appears to have two critical components – whether in the private or public sector. Social innovation should provide a needed good or service, while at the same time serving a societal need. It’s neither a new nor a foreign concept, but hopefully this should be a start to a broader conversation.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Davis Progressive

    so this is a term that goes back at least 15 years and probably earlier since they were developing a center at stanford.  i think this just proves how many things the readers of the vanguard know nothing about.

  2. Tia Will

    how many things the readers of the vanguard know nothing about.”

    I will count myself as amongst the ranks of those not knowledgeable in the area of social innovation. A few months ago when talking about an idea I had at one of the first Jump Start Davis events, I was informed by Bill Habitch that what I was describing was a social start up. He essentially gave me some reading suggestions and invited me to come back and talk more when I was ready. While I am nowhere near ready, and won’t be until after retirement because of my perceived time commitment, I have found the innovation community to be very warm and welcoming even to someone with such “outlandish” ( quoting one poster) ideas as myself.

    I want to thank Bill and everyone involved in the Jump Start and Pollinate projects for their efforts including education, collaboration, and open mindedness about the value of non traditional ideas .

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