Challenging conventional wisdom in social innovation

There are no shortage of books on social entrepreneurship and innovation, but are they the books young people need? Do we have the right balance between theory and practice, or mechanics and motivation? Whose voice is dominant? What’s wrong with many of the current books on offer that drove me to publish two of my own?

Well, a quick glance through the literature and you’ll quickly realise that most authors choose to place social entrepreneurs under an expert spotlight – sometimes, but not always, even interviewing them – before attempting to unpick and dissect their work. That’s despite the author – in most cases – never having innovated themselves. Analysis is offered on what they consider worked, and failed, and the various theories applied give their commentary a sense of academic credibility. Surprisingly, most often missing are the voices of the innovators themselves, with the occasional quote considered reasonable exposure to the person doing the actual work. While expert analysis can be helpful, so too can the voice and story of the social entrepreneur, in their own words. My most recent book represents an attempt to address that balance.

The thirteen case studies included in Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation: International Case Studies and Practice, cover a wide range of problem areas with a wide geographical spread. The founders of each social innovation share their own stories – their background, how and where they grew up, and how they believe it helped qualify them to do their later work. They share the facts – and own analysis – of the problem they encountered, and why their solution works and why it matters. You’ll get to read about their response to finding the problem – or the problem finding them – and how they went about developing a solution and then an organisation to support it. You’ll hear their thoughts on key decisions they had to make – funding, sustainability and organizational structure – and how they determine the impact of what they do. They share the highs, and the lows, of life as a social entrepreneur – what worked for them, and what failed. Theirs is no glossy account of instant success and fame, rather the often untold messy and frustrating side of social entrepreneurship. They end with reflections on lessons learnt throughout their journey, and questions you might want to consider asking yourself as you unpick their work, and offer your own expert analysis.

What’s more, the case studies are not grouped together by topic or geography, something many other books might have done. Rather, the stories are presented in a way which provides better opportunity for discovery. Too much of the social innovation sector works in silos, with health innovators hanging out with other health innovators, and political activists hanging out with other political activists. As a result, opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas and solutions is often limited, despite it being quite possible that health professionals might learn from activists, and visa versa, if they ever found themselves in the same room. Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project, once told me that you should attend at least one conference every year which is totally outside of your usual work and interest areas.

It is my hope that, if you’re driven to making a positive impact in the world, you will discover case studies in the new book that you might otherwise not have naturally gravitated towards. Regardless of your own particular focus or interest area, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to learn something from case studies in a totally different field – in data visualization in Palestine, for example, or the development of solar technologies for maternity wards in Nigeria, or massage for autism in the United States. Remain open to solutions, wherever they come from.

Through my own work with a messaging platform called FrontlineSMS, I had the great honour of being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer back in 2010. Since stepping back from that project in 2012 I have focused an increasing amount of my time and efforts mentoring, speaking and writing about social innovators the world over – those who are solving some of the most pressing problems facing humanity and the planet. This new book represents an extension of that work. If you’re looking to make a positive dent on history, I hope you find it useful. It’s available on the publisher’s website, or all other bookshops (online, and offline).

Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of kiwanja.net, he devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. His early research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

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