24 May 2022

3.1 Social innovation and understanding the problem

Author/Compiled by
Cora Craigmile

Executive Summary

In this factsheet you will be introduced to the concept of social innovation and social entrepreneurship as promising pathways for improving our societies and protecting our ecosystems. You will also be introduced to the importance of understanding a problem properly before attempting to solve it. If you are an innovative individual who can easily see the bigger picture and understand the interdependencies of the bigger picture then social innovation might be an interesting path for you to explore. If on top of this you also happen to have an entrepreneurial spirit then social entrepreneurship might be the right career for you.

What is social innovation?

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Social innovation departs from the belief that the systems that have been created in society (governmental, educational, health…) are unequal and whilst some benefit from them many do not and are in fact negatively affected by them. Not having inclusive systems has led to poverty, unemployment, discrimination, loss of biodiversity etc. Since the problems generated by these systems are complex in nature they require innovative and comprehensive solutions. Social innovation is a process, program or product brings in actors from different spheres to work collaboratively with the objective of bringing about positive change by tackling the problems in systems at their root. Social innovation is also about making the different elements of the systems more resilient and able to deal with future challenges. In order for these social innovations to take place we need change at all scales including the entrepreneurial scale.  In social entrepreneurship, business success is not only measured in terms of the profit and growth of the business itself but also in terms of positive social and environmental impact.

Understanding the problem

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If you are someone who wants to contribute to social innovation through an entrepreneurial solution you will first need to understand the roots of the problem that you (together with all the different actors in society) are trying to solve.

If you are considering starting a social initiative, project or business related to water or climate it is crucial that you understand the nature of the challenge that you are wanting to address and why it should be your solution that addresses the challenge. Understanding the problems at hand will not only help you better tailor your solution to your customer’s needs but it will make it easier to design a more sustainable business model that is geared towards increasing positive socio-environmental impact.

When trying to get to the bottom of complex socio-environmental challenges there are a few things that can get in the way and that we should be aware of:

  • We wear blinkers and usually only really look at problems from our own perspective without considering or talking to others. So organisations that are responsible for managing water supplies don’t necessarily work with the ones that are responsible for agriculture and the ones that are responsible for energy don’t work with the ones that are responsible for solid waste...and so on and on. The consequence is that a toilet will be built without thinking about what happens with the wastewater. Food will be provided without thinking about recycling the organic waste.
  • We are short-sighted because we invest in treatment plants and other fancy technology systems for providing water and sanitation but we don’t factor in the costs of energy, staff and spare parts that these will require in the future for operating and maintaining them and neither who will pay for it. The water tariffs won’t because they are too low in most countries. We don’t equip our staff with the skills they need to manage, operate and maintain these systems. And we do not build systems that allow us to recycle nutrients and water - resources that will become or that are already scarce. So this is the consequence of our short-sightedness.
  • We believe in magic holes. Because we dump all our waste into these magic holes. Many people still act as if we lived on a flat world, where we grow or buy our food, we cook and eat it, we take a crap and then we just dump it into the magic hole.

So before you go ahead and start building your business or project, you should pinpoint the exact water or climate related challenges in the context you intend to operate in.

Start with a simple exercise

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Start by drawing a locality map. The aim of a locality map is for you to understand your context’s water and/or climate related systems by visualizing the current water and/or climate flows.  

The first step in making a locality map is drawing a map of your area by including water sources; distribution and collection systems; domestic, industrial and agricultural water users and waste producers; treatment plants and other landmarks relevant for visualising the water, energy and nutrient flows in your area. You may use the guidelines and templates from the publication “SDG 6 along the Water and Nutrient Cycles” below to design your locality map. I suggest that you do a locality map of a typical town and its surroundings; even if your target area, so the area where you want to sell your product, is bigger. The challenges probably resemble each other. Then you note the sanitation and waste management challenges where they arise. You might also want to highlight any hot spots, so areas where the challenges are concentrated. Also indicate who is responsible for these challenges: so who is responsible for the waste in the streets and who is responsible for the faecal sludge being dumped into the river. As a last step, think about if and how these challenges are connected with each other. So to get started, just take a big piece of paper, print and cut out the puzzle pieces from the publication, grab some colour pens and get creative.

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