Open Sourcing Climate Change, Health, and Poverty: An Open Book On Social Innovation

Why is it that the best examples of innovative problem solving so often come from people or organizations who work across or outside of the traditional divides between the public, private, and non-profit sectors?

Governments, companies and NGOs all have established structures and silos that tend to block innovation. The drive to "own" an issue or solution also slows the spread of good ideas, approaches or technologies. Social Innovation, by contrast, proposes a more collaborative, decentralized, open approach.

The Young Foundation's newly released "Open Book of Social Innovation" takes a closer look at this approach to "open-sourcing" the solutions to the interlocking crises that we face.

The ReCode Portland and Barefoot Solar projects, discussed here before, are both concrete examples of what social innovation can create. You could also look at Freecycle, participatory budgeting, and local organic food cooperatives that link urban consumer with rural producers for other variations.

Examples like these have won social innovation an increasing amount of attention. Released today, the Young Foundation's new book adds weight to a concept that could easily become over-hyped. It is a well written primer that uses a mountain of case studies and concise analysis to discuss how social innovation happens, and how it can be supported to function even better. The authors' argue that this open and cross-cutting approach allows you to circumvent the inertia of established institutional structures and find solutions to our most pressing problems, namely: reducing carbon emissions, maintaining health, and ending poverty.

One of their most valuable arguments comes early, when they point out that collaborative social innovation does more than find solutions to specific problems. The nature of the process – which creates new links between organizations and individuals, provides opportunities for the learning, and gives people opportunities to participate actively in their communities – also increases society's ability to respond to future challenges. As they put it, social innovations "are innovations that are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act."

The 224 pages e-book is well written and packed with good examples. I particularly liked the sections on how to scale-up and diffuse innovations to reach for larger system wides changes. The style is concise to the point of being almost encyclopedic. While it doesn't always make for the most enticing reading, it is easy to navigate through the wealth of information and drill down into subjects where you have a particular interest.

From the Introduction:

"The materials we’ve gathered here are intended to support all those involved in social innovation: policymakers who can help to create the right conditions; foundations and philanthropists who can fund and support; social organizations trying to meet social needs more effectively; and social entrepreneurs and innovators themselves.

In other fields, methods for innovation are well understood. In medicine, science, and to a lesser degree in business, there are widely accepted ideas, tools and approaches. There are strong institutions and many people whose job requires them to be good at taking ideas from inception to impact. There is little comparable in the social field, despite the richness and vitality of social
innovation. Most people trying to innovate are aware of only a fraction of the methods they could be using.

This book, and the series of which it is a part, attempt to fill this gap. In this volume, we map out the hundreds of methods for social innovation as a first step to developing a knowledge base. In the other volume of the Social Innovator series, we look at specific methods in greater depth, exploring ways of developing workable ideas and setting up a social venture in a way that ensures its financial sustainability; and that its structures of accountability, governance and ownership resonate with its social mission.

We have also launched an accompanying website,, to gather comments, case studies and new methods."


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.

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