Social Innovation – A New Approach to Tackle Complex Challenges

The world is confronted with huge challenges,requiring many solutions and ideas. To overcome these challenges, open innovation is not only an option but a necessity in present and future problem solving. Particularly in the non-profit sector many organisations are realizing that they are unable to find solutions to challenges such as climate change or food crises on their own. Problems and their potential solutions are embedded in complex settings. The non profit sector has been traditionally much more open to finding external ideas and solutions than the commercial sector. Many energysaving ideas might not have the potential to become commercial products, but can still provide immediate help to those in need. Whoever is willing to contemplate the genuine complexities of project work can not fail to see the need for a broader range of expertise and an interdisciplinary approach.

The United Nations and its different organisations have been experimenting with the field of crowdsourcing and open innovation. UNICEF is one of the pioneers of open innovation, having established innovation labs for example in Kosovo. The organisation has put together idea competitions such as the 72 hour challenge. The first 72 hours during a humanitarian disaster are the most critical ones. Finding solutions to help protect vulnerable people is a major challenge for organisations such as UNICEF.

The International Telecommunication Union takes a similar approach but its innovation challenge targeted business ideas to tackle the often neglected creation of local content.The ITU was “looking for the most promising tech start-ups aimed at inspiring the creation, aggregation or digitization of local content, particularly in non-Latin scripts.” Its community of over 4,000 members has developed 32 serious business ideas. Further more, the UNDP Eurasia has not only requested ideas for alternative energy solutions for rural areas but has also tested new funding models through crowdfunding.

The rise of social innovation addresses the need for more radically open systems without organisational boundaries, in a bid to find alternative solutions to problems elsewhere and in a more transparent way. Social innovation empowers people and their ideas to:

  • Identify needs and problems and create a motivating environment, in which colleagues and stakeholders can openly share opinions to create solutions to the problems that affect them.

  • Offer new channels to collaborate constructively and systematically on bottom-up solutions, with the participation of those who will actually benefit.

  • Develop ideas in a rapid-prototyping form, apply solutions and jointly learn from the collaborative process and outcome right from the start.

  • Be open and consider all potential models to implement solutions, including both commercial and for non-profit (social business) models.

The GIZ has been very active supporting the ICE innovation hubs in Ethiopia and Egypt. These are based in co-working spaces, in which people can share and brainstorm together to come up with ideas on social or development issues. For instance, the creation of an urban garden programme to set up roof-tops gardens in the city of Cairo. A similar approach is undertaken by the World Bank that funds innovation hubs to empower entrepreneurs and agents of change with great ideas in various fields and supports existing initiatives across Africa, which experiment with new funding models to reach people with great ideas.




The result is a growing ecosystem for open and social innovation bringing together various actors from the for-profit and non-profit sector. Open events such as hackathons host programmers and other skilled people for a day or a weekend to tackle specific challenges. Such as the Energy Hackday in Berlin, organized by The Open Knowledge Foundation Germany in cooperation with the utility Vattenfall. At the main event, people developed new ideas using electric consumption data. Before and after the event, Vattenfall worked with different audiences on product ideas and consumer transparency. Similar events have taken place within the open government field. Public administrations have opened their doors to programmers to develop better citizen services such as mobile apps. It is worth mentioning that social innovation transcends these offline events – the collaboration does not end at the event; in contrary, all participants continue to be connected through social networks, on which they keep on collaborating after the event.


>> Ch. 8 How Does It Work? Open Innovation in Different Steps