Rethinking our innovation paradigms

Julia Kloiber, partner at Ashoka, a social entrepreneurship network, on the core ingredients of social innovation and how founders can contribute

Innovation is happening faster than ever before. New platforms, digital tools and services are being launched and marketed to billions around the globe. Something that is hip and cool today, is outdated by tomorrow. We in the Global North have gotten used to prosperity and constant economic growth. We are used to the fast pace of innovation. At the same time we know that we have to slow down and to stop exploiting resources in order to preserve our planet. It’s time to rethink innovation.

Think big and work on policies

Social innovation is the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues. Social innovators tackle systemic problems, such as climate change, poverty and migration – problems that are complex. Their focus is on social progress. In this context perseverance is more important than fast pace. Social innovation is not about tackling the symptoms of problems but rather the root causes. Social entrepreneurs like Dr Yuhyun Park spent years fully understanding the issues they are working on. In the case of Park it is digital intelligence: With her organization DQ Institute she focuses on the empowerment of children and youth to thrive in a digital world. With their hands-on Child Digital Readiness Kit they have reached over 1 million children in 80+ countries and 21 languages. As a social entrepreneur Park always thought big: To expand her impact far beyond her own organization and its capacities she early on focussed on policy work and developed a framework for Digital Intelligence. Today her framework is supported by The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the World Bank, and the United Nations. Yuhyun Park is setting global standards for education and policies on digital intelligence and reaching billions.

Perseverance is key

New technology holds huge potential for collaboration and access to knowledge. We are benefiting from social digital innovations like Wikipedia on a daily basis. Liisa Smits from Sweden started a social enterprise called Ignitia to leverage data for social good. She is fighting poverty by providing farmers in tropical areas with accurate weather forecasts. More than 90% of land farmed in Sub-Saharan Africa relies on rain as the primary source of water for agriculture. Once predictable rainfall patterns are undergoing significant changes due to climate change and pose incredible risks to yields and food security in the region. Growth in the agricultural sector is 11 times more effective at reducing poverty. Liisa established Ignitia a decade ago. It took her and her team many years of R&D to set up the accurate weather models for the tropics. Today thousands of small scale farmers in Ghana, Nigeria and Mali rely on the digital infrastructure that Liisa and her team have built. Liisa Smits is an example of how perseverance is needed to tackle big challenges. After many years of testing and improving their systems it's now time to scale it to more regions.

Care, maintenance and sustainability are core ingredients for social innovation: Ensuring that innovation is not something that has short lifespans and only serves the top percentage of humanity, but that innovation is sustainable, long lasting and has the potential to improve the lives of millions. 

Julia Kloiber, partner at Ashoka - photo by Oliver Ajkovic

Here are three things founders can learn from social entrepreneurs:

  • Become an expert. Get to know the field and the problems you are dealing with inside out. That requires some time, but only until you understand the roots of the problems in your fields you will be able to work towards solving them.
  • Problem centric instead of tool centric approaches. Always center your work around the problem and never the technology or the tools. Be very flexible when it comes to the tools you are using and adapt over time.
  • Build with, not for. Work closely with communities and users of your tools and services. Learn from their needs and approaches and help them to scale and improve them.

Julia Kloiber works at the intersection of technology and society. She is very much interested in future visions for technology that focus on diverse audiences. Julia co-founded organizations such as the Prototype Fund and Superrr. With Ashoka she is exploring new developments in digital social entrepreneurship.