Social innovation sparks creativity

posted in: Social innovation | 2

Creativity, or ‘the production of novel and useful ideas in any domain’[1] is widely recognised as a source of competitive advantage when delivered as innovation in business. Many businesses try to encourage lateral thinking, in the knowledge that exposure to new, different and interesting provocation can enhance creativity. But are there particular types of stimulus which maximise this effect?

This blog explores compelling evidence which suggests solving social challenges in a business context holds unique power to spark creativity, with knock-on effects for business performance. This evidence should not be ignored by business leaders exploring social innovation: they may find it benefits their employees and business, as well as the world.

So how can tackling social challenges make people more creative?

And what is more, how is this any different from the creativity normal business challenges encourage? The following four effects- problem-solving, frugality, partnerships and inspiration- have been reported in multiple businesses where they have enhanced creativity.

1. Problem-solving: working on social innovation challenges improves capabilities

Exposure to challenges from a different sector encourages people to go well beyond business as usual, and learn quicker and develop more complex strategic approaches to innovation. Employees break out of their usual thinking patterns and start to work with more energy and creativity. This contributes to both business performance and has a positive impact on society.[2]

For example, Centrica has used social problems as a platform for developing problem-solving capability. Working with social entrepreneurs has super-charged its peoples’ innovation capability, in a way that daily business challenges wouldn’t have done: “the benefit of working with social enterprise tends to be that they are very different from the way we are as a big corporate. Their motivations are different; their reason for being in business is different… therefore there’s a lot more to learn from the way in which they look at life,” says Stuart Phillips, Head of Group Business Performance.[3] After working with social enterprises on their Ignite scheme, Phillips applied some of his learnings back to Centrica’s financial planning methods, encouraging his teams to find new, simple, and effective solutions inspired by his work with social enterprises.

2. Frugality: less resources compel people to find cheaper, better solutions

Within a commercial organisation, social innovation rarely commands a significant budget. This lack of resource can trigger a lean and resourceful approach, where advocates of social innovation are forced to find efficient and low-cost solutions. The process of frugal innovation – or the creation of faster, better and cheaper solutions which employ minimal resources- is giving rise to novel solutions and new forms of growth. For example, Tata in India developed the ‘Swach,’ a water purifier targeted at rural families which is just $20 – 50 per cent cheaper than its competitors. Having to allow for narrower margins challenged R&D and procurement experts at Tata to find cheaper and more effective methods of production.

In large, high turnover businesses, it can be easy to lose sight of the realities many small ventures face. Sometimes, the solutions developed by small enterprises can be truly ground-breaking because of their limited resources. The Baobab Network, an African tech accelerator that partners corporates with start-ups operating on low budgets, has seen this effect many times: “the great thing about the start-ups we work with is that their products are genuinely unique. Being very low on cash means that they’ve had to push the boundaries much further than what you’d see from a start-up or company with greater resources,” says co-founder Toby Hanington.[3]

3. Partnerships: creating social and commercial hybrids

Working in a business can mean only commercial people interact, but social innovation necessitates reaching out to new partners. Barclays’ partnership with the Unreasonable Group helps entrepreneurs from purpose-led businesses scale their impact, ultimately increasing employment in at-risk populations. The combination of senior executives and entrepreneurs and combining diverse perspectives for the benefit of all has been experienced as refreshing.[3]

Social and commercial innovation techniques can feel worlds apart, but where a holistic, integrated approach can be established, impact can accelerate dramatically. Hybrid organisations can become a ‘fountain of innovation ’[4], coupling the creation of economic and social value. At Unilever, Sustainable Living brands have grown 50 per cent faster than the rest of the business. For instance, when the Knorr team in Africa were challenged to drive growth whilst having a positive impact, they built a creative business model that integrated food fortification and serving small-hold farmers and rural communities into their business plan. In this case, the dual-mission compelled the Knorr team to think creatively.

4. Inspiration: creating real engagement amongst your people

Probably the most clear-cut way social innovation enhances creativity is from the sense of fulfillment it provides. Many people care about doing meaningful work that contributes to solving society’s problems, to the point that ‘the willingness to trade-off values for career seems to be on a path to extinction’. Where employee values align with corporate values, motivation is far higher, which leads to engagement, or a ‘positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterised by vigour, dedication, and absorption’[5].

Companies pursuing social innovation benefit from real passion and engagement in their people, which has a knock-on effect for business performance. Barclays have found that people involved with their Social Innovation Facility or Citizenship Programme, who get the chance to do purposeful work that makes a difference to others, are more connected to their work, and are likely to stay at Barclays for longer.[3]

The road ahead

This blog has argued that social innovation can enhance creativity in business in four main ways, namely in problem-solving, frugality, partnerships, and inspiration. Innovation is partly a cultural activity, where the ‘key is often a creative interpretation of old problems or solutions.’ As the challenges we face grow, businesses who are not already compelled to promote social innovation for its intrinsic worth might consider its very real positive implications for their business.

And let’s not forget that applying a business lens to social challenges may unlock new solutions, playing a significant role in tackling the world’s intractable problems.

About Miranda Essex

MSt in Social Innovation 2016-2018, Inventor at ?What If! Innovation,
[email protected]


[1] Amabile, T.M. (1983) The Social Psychology of Creativity (New York: Springer-Verlag) (1998) ‘How to Kill Creativity’, Harvard Business Review 76.5: 76-87

[2] Cumming, J.F., N. Bettridge and P. Toyne (2005) ‘Responding to Global Business Critical Issues: A Source of Innovation and Transformation for FTSE 350 Companies?’, Corporate Governance 5: 42-51abile, T.M. (1983) The Social Psychology of Creativity (New York: Springer-Verlag) (1998) ‘How to Kill Creativity’, Harvard Business Review 76.5: 76-87

[3] These findings come from interviews the author held for her own research

[4] Cumming, J.F., N. Bettridge and P. Toyne (2005) ‘Responding to Global Business Critical Issues: A Source of Innovation and Transformation for FTSE 350 Companies?’, Corporate Governance 5: 42-51

[5] Battilana, J., Lee, M., Walker, J., & Dorsey, C. (2012). In Search of the Hybrid Ideal. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 10(3), 51-55

[6] Jones & Harter 2005

Miranda Essex

Miranda Essex

Miranda Essex

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2 Responses

  1. Alexander Portz

    Interesting perspective – like the frugal innovation aspect particularly. Have heard numerous examples of this in the start-up world where pressure to deliver is high, and timelines and budgets are limited.

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