When you say the word “innovation” most people tend to think “technology and IT”. After all, it was a tech company – Google – that was hailed by Forbes, as the world’s most innovative company in 2019. But, says Warren Nilsson, associate professor of social innovation at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), to limit innovation to technology is to limit the scale of the impact we can have.
Nilsson says that while technology solutions often get all the attention and grab the headlines, innovation is not always glamorous or even clever, rather it is about how effective an intervention is at addressing a particular business or social challenge and whether this is sustainable or not. Sometimes technology – badly applied – can even get in the way of this, he argues.
By contrast, innovation is about deep enquiry and engagement with the issues and the ongoing harnessing of the knowledge of those impacts to refine the solution, he says. “From that deep enquiry and the relationships you build, many partial solutions will emerge, and in time you may well have a new business model or a new product.” Crucially, he argues that businesses need to see themselves as part of the world that needs to change rather than as an external force that is applying a solution.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the arena of social innovation, broadly defined as new practices that are developed to meet social needs in a better way than the existing solutions. Take the frustration at the long slow pace of housing provision for disadvantaged South Africans. Rather than sit back and patiently wait their turn, property entrepreneurs in townships came up with their own solutions. These micro-developers, as they are sometimes called, started building houses without the traditional support base such as banks and the formal real estate sector.
Initially, at least. These township-inspired initiatives soon spawned opportunities that allowed the formal sector to get involved. So a trust was founded – supported by commercial banks – to fund the micro-developers. "We are testing new ideas here. Then we can start to share the learnings with government, and with financial institutions like banks, who were previously reluctant to work with emerging developers,” said the manager of one micro-development funding initiative.
Understanding the drivers of and creating the conditions for this kind of deep innovation to take root, has been the life work of Dr Nilsson, who now co-directs the MPhil in Inclusive Innovation at the UCT GSB, one of the few degrees in the country that explicitly encourages students to grapple with social challenges on the continent. And he says that it really starts at the level of the individual. Before they can upscale their influence, social innovators often have to start small – they have to undergo some transformation themselves. “As you go on that journey of deep reflection, you need to not just question what’s wrong with the world, but also what you need to disrupt in your own thinking,” says Nilsson. “I don’t think you can do social innovation without your own personal transformation journey.”
That’s in part because we are products of the systems in which we work and operate, he argues. That is baggage that we have to shed first. “Like any of us, you carry so much of the system in yourself, unknowingly for the most part,” says Nilsson. “So unless you’re really questioning your own way of thinking, and finding ways to encourage others in your organisation to be doing the same, you’re just going to be scratching the surface of the problem.”
This applies as much to social innovators working in small start-ups or bigger more bureaucratic organisations that resist innovation. Dr Badri Zolfaghari, a researcher in the field of organisational behaviour at the UCT GSB, and Nilsson’s co-director on the MPhil in Inclusive Innovation, points out that many of the students on the MPhil come from government. “These students go back to these large organisations and they’re trying to influence those organisations,” says Zolfaghari. “It depends on a lot of factors – their positions or seniority, for instance – but they all need to do the work of personal transformation to stand a chance of being effective.”
A second key factor in effective social innovation, believes Zolfaghari is thinking locally. It’s not about ignoring the value of international knowledge and practices, but rather about understanding that those don’t always translate well to conditions here. “We are seeing that social innovators in South Africa are saying that what works in other countries and what’s been written in other countries may not work in the context of here,” she notes. “So they’re creating local knowledge that is relevant to people here. Again, it comes down to an appreciation of the fact that you are part of the system." adds Nilsson.
The good news for South Africa is that the country is packed with social innovators who embody these characteristics and are aching to create new solutions to stubborn old problems. “The people who are drawn to our programme, for instance, are people who are innately disrupters of their systems or are ready to disrupt the systems they’re operating in,” notes Zolfaghari.
What’s more, they haven’t given up on the country just yet. “These are people – many of them still quite young – who, despite everything that has been going on, are optimistic about the direction the country is going, and the role they want to play in that,” she says.
“And they feel a personal responsibility for making that happen,” adds Nilsson. “Our role therefore is to find ways to support and enable them to turn that passion and purpose into effective and sustainable solutions, which is part of the work that we do at the UCT GSB.”