Social innovation is innovation applied with social causes in mind. It focuses on solutions to social problems – and is understandably a noble aspiration for many.

The value created from such a venture will be returned to society and is not necessarily driven by the desire for individual or enterprise profits. Fair trade, emissions trading and charter schools can be cited as examples of where social innovations are taking place.

Validating social innovation

Social innovation needs to undergo a litmus test before it can truly be considered to be paradigm-shifting and, more importantly, sustainable.

There are five easy ways to validate social innovation.

Alignment.  The question to ask is whether everyone gets the point? Social progress is complex and is subject to different interpretations. What serves as a social benefit for one party may not work for another.

Take carbon taxation for example. If a government imposes a carbon tax on the population, the results would be less carbon emissions – which is kinder to the planet – but a steep hike in operating costs for most high-energy based industries. Industry backlash to such measures can be punitive and swift and many political careers have been curtailed when attempting to carry out this decision. So it is important to make sure that the majority of the community can see the outcome of the innovation as desirable and beneficial. National policies are not always easy to implement when it comes to this so social innovation often works best at a city level.

Economic reality. Linked to outcomes is the need to keep sight of economic realities faced by the common folk. For workers, jobs are important to enable them to pay for food and housing. A social innovation or innovator who fails to recognize that change can take away livelihoods is due for a sharp awakening.

When Uber launched its scheme to offer mobility to the masses, taxi drivers were incensed over the loss of business even though in the bigger picture, Uber offered customers a better and cheaper service.  As witnessed in many countries, in reaction, Uber vehicles were damaged and their owners were attacked. A social innovation in affordable healthcare on the other hand offers many attractive advantages, from better individual well-being to a healthy workforce for employers; this is good for everyone.

Political governance. Corruption is harmful to economies and breeds inefficiency and waste. For social innovation to be truly effective there must be a level playing field where fair competition thrives while hard work and clever ideas are aptly rewarded. If they have to pay bribes along the way, social innovators will be discouraged from pitching their ideas. Genuine political governance is where the government is clean and transparent, and politicians put aside self-interest to behave in a more statesman-like manner, supporting social innovation for the good it brings to the less privileged.

Innovation is synonymous with change. You cannot have innovation without shaking the tree. As the late Steve Jobs declared, it’s about ‘putting dent in the universe’. The Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs are the accepted framework for social change in the world. But with too many individuals caught up in in consumerism and self-interest, it is difficult to change mindsets and win hearts overnight.

Take food buffets for example. Customers love overloading their plates even though they cannot possibly finish all that food. An innovation to limit the portion taken not only eliminates wasted food but also reminds people of the dangers of obesity arising from overindulgence.

Unfortunately such an idea would run afoul of customers enmeshed in the ‘all-you-eat’ culture as well as restauranteurs who use such tactics to lure in patrons. Change has to happen whether forced by regulation or fostered by gradual measures. The key factor is that change must be sustained.

Jobs must be created. Social innovation must create employment opportunities as otherwise ideas will come and go. In Alicante, Spain, authorities undertook a bold experiment to provide affordable housing for low income individuals and elders who could not afford or cope with their current homes. The condition imposed was that one young person would be ‘responsible’ for four elderly persons in that community. The experiment was a huge success – the elderly felt a sense of belonging while retaining their independence; the young participants on the other hand developed emotional empathy skills that made them highly marketable to employers.

Other social innovations in areas such as telemedicine have freed up valuable time for doctors to perform other duties while generating a range of new caregiver jobs to cater for the needs of the less-abled. Social innovation must create jobs and opportunities otherwise they will not take root in communities.

So in summary, social innovation can thrive if the conditions are right. Both government and private sectors can play important roles in making this happen. The government has to be clear in policy direction and in enforcing regulation even when the decisions are unpopular. As long as the government is clean and transparent, society will rally around causes that make sense. The private sector meanwhile needs to think small but act big. Social entrepreneurs or’ socio-preneurs’, which are small medium enterprises, tend to be agile and quick to seize opportunities as they are closer to the market than larger companies; this type of thinking is essential for innovation. Large companies can still get involved through social ‘intrapreneurship’, whereby inspired employees are given corporate support to come up with and nurture products that serve society such as ‘bottom of the pyramid’ products for the underprivileged.

Lastly, innovation is best developed through diversity. A single sector cannot provide all the solutions. Partnerships between public and private bodies, together with civil society often form the best ideas. Innovation, let alone social innovation, is not without its risks but the latter can be better mitigated through a collective approach. Shared risk leads to shared rewards which equal shared value for all in the end.