The common goal of those working in social innovation is well understood – to create and sustain meaningful change.

This is something we’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as we look at the shape of our social impact practice at Deloitte, and how we work with our clients to achieve positive social change.

We see a social innovation practice landscape that is evolving along two dimensions – “what” we are innovating, and “how” we are innovating.

The "how": evolution of design approaches

The evolution of design approaches is a reasonably well trodden and understood path. Historically, change processes largely consisted of smart people – from  politicians to policy analysts – getting into a room together to come up with ideas and then implement them. There is increasing recognition of the value of participatory innovation processes  and most organisations would engage in some form of consultation or user-centred design process aimed at capturing the voices of those served by their operations.

While the term “co-design” is used a lot, true co-design, involving shared decision making, is not widely practiced in New Zealand. This can be an uncomfortable process for those who hold the decision rights and resources as by definition, it requires giving up some level of control. We increasingly see more sophisticated power sharing arrangements happening, in particular between the Crown and iwi, but these are still few and far between.

The true goal we are evolving toward is community self-determination – shifting power and resources into communities to use as they see best. This recognises that communities are the experts in their own lives and needs and given the right resources, are best placed to determine what will make the greatest impact.

The "what": innovation context

The context for innovation is a less well-trodden path. Service design may be the flavour of the month, with organisations across the country rushing to establish their Customer or Service Design functions, but service design is limited in its ability to make meaningful, sustainable change. As is suggested by its name, its focus is on services to customers or clients – be they programmes, products, or other offerings. While a focus on the people served by an organisation is certainly a positive move, service design solutions tend toward point solutions; service design methodologies are not well placed to tackle complex, multi-dimensional changes. It is not a surprise that most social innovation in New Zealand occurs at a service level – where it is easy to manage scope and align stakeholders – but the opportunity to create a meaningful impact in this space is reduced.

Systems thinking is emerging as the answer to this challenge. The practice of mapping and understanding systems – the child welfare system, the housing system – to understand the relationships and influences that drive the outcomes experienced. Systems thinking certainly takes a more holistic view to complex challenges but remains bound by the constraints of the system it seeks to understand. The underlying forces driving the systems we operate within – capitalism, democracy, neo-liberalism – escape consideration.

True social innovation requires the remit to work on our systems, not in them. To rethink the way our systems work from first principles and to place the people they are intended to serve at the centre. This is the difficult end of the spectrum, where change occurs over generations, not years. It is the stalking ground of activists and of those few organisations that can afford to take a generational view of progress. Working in this space is hard – it flies in the face of our three-year political cycle, the way we structure funding arrangements, and shareholder expectations – and involves a level of collaboration and stakeholder alignment that is off-putting to many. But this is where the real social innovation happens – not in new services or programmes, but in shifting the fundamental structures of our society on a path toward equity and inclusion.

So how do we support this evolution?

As resource holders or decision makers, we can challenge organisational silos and collaborate with other organisations similarly seeking to improve outcomes for the same group of people. We can challenge ourselves to tackle the right problems – not just the easy problems. And we can look for ways to share our power with the communities we are seeking to impact.

As change makers and designers we need to step up and actively work at a systems level, and on the things that matter.  We need to be more discerning about the social innovation challenges we are willing to work on; to push back and challenge our clients on whether they are tackling the right problem, in the right way.

Find out more about our Social Impact practice here.

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