Article: What is it you do again? Social Innovation?

Published:  July 15, 2015

All words by Adrian Tobin.

After many years working in government and various not-for-profit sectors I now find myself in the fortunate position as the Social Innovation Director at Symplicit, an innovation consultancy that focuses on using behavioural insights to create strategic design solutions for their clients. My days (and many nights) are spent working with clients and our  team of researchers and designers applying human centred design to tackle the wicked challenges that face our society today.

Though, over coffee conversations with friends and family I am regularly asked what is it you actually do? Social Innovation? Is that like doing innovative stuff with Facebook?

My father-in-law has simply given up on trying to explain it and just sticks with the old ‘he is a consultant’.

So we ‘social innovators’ still have a way to go in building a broader understanding of what social innovation actually is.

The guys at Stanford University have defined social innovation as:

A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.

I would like to think my definition is slightly more appealing, and definitely easier to explain to my friends and family,

A social innovation is a novel solution to help tackle a social or environmental problem to the benefit of society.

The next question I am asked following the next sip of coffee is inevitably, “So how do you create to these novel solutions?”

This is where the conversation becomes really exciting for a social innovation geek like me, as I explain that at Symplicit we apply our unique human centred design research process to each social problem.

We do this by starting with the people we are designing for and end with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs, with a focus on how we can change or shape their behaviour through the design solutions we provide.

We build a deep empathy with the people we are designing for; generate tons of ideas; build a bunch of prototypes; share what we have made with the people we are designing for to check we have got our thinking in the right direction; and eventually, working closely with our client, we put the innovative new solution out in the world to help tackle the initial problem we faced.

Another sip of coffee, “Well, that makes sense. Can you give me an example of a social innovation that is having an impact?”

More recently, I have found myself talking about a few social innovations that really float my boat. One of which is the AjA Project from the US.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 9.35.45 amDuring a research/surf trip across America and Mexico late 2014, I visited the team at the AjA Project for a couple of days. I left inspired by the work they were doing and the impact it was having on marginalised communities across the city.

The AjA project is a non-profit organisation headquartered in San Diego, California. It provides photography-based programming to transform the lives of youth and communities. The program exists to ignite change, break cycles of marginalisation and to build healthy communities.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 9.35.58 am They do this through a creative platform called participatory photography that asks participants to reflect on and analyse their personal and social landscapes. In doing so, it helps participants in the program to explore their inner emotions and the world around them through creativity and story telling.

Storytelling is one of the key tools in the human centred design toolkit and we use it on a daily basis at Symplicit.

Telling a story brings an experience to life. Many people find they can relate to a story.

It is a powerful way to share insights by telling a compelling narrative from another person’s point of view, taking their perspective into consideration when they do a particular activity, or use a product or service.

Stories can be communicated in many different ways, depending on the nature of the social problem you are trying to solve – in text, visuals, videos or a combination.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 9.36.30 am

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 9.35.48 amThe AjA Project uses photography as a tool for at-risk youth to re-imagine their lives. Students create photographs that represent self and community, they use their images as a platform to examine what is informing their choices, behaviours and sense of identity, they then rebuild their story through the same process.

Why does this matter?

Because if you tell someone over and over what they are destined to become, it will probably happen – and let’s be honest – the messages young people in marginalised communities are getting, set them up for failure.

A seemingly simple or inconsequental – but very powerful way to break that cycle for people, is to not passively accept what society tells you – and to actively visualise, and actualise an alternative path with the use of photography.

The theory of change at AjA Project is that to drive real social progress we need to motivate change from within. I love that!

The AjA Project is making a difference, with 76% of their students reporting a significant increase in their ability to see themselves as change makers, which is critical for their success in education, career and to ignite community involvement.

What else is powerful about this example is that a simple solution is often the most innovative. YES photography CAN do that!

Recently I drew on this experience with AjA Project and applied it to a design challenge I was facing at home in Australia – mental health in the workplace. One of the benefits of the human centred design process is that many solutions come from applying one solution from a different, yet parallel social issue, to the issue you are tackling; but more about that in my next post.

To check out more about the AjA Project go to their website:

Adrian Tobin is Social Innovation Director at Symplicit.
Images from AjA Project

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