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 (UCT) Graduate School of Business, to limit innovation to technology is to limit the scale of the effect we can have.
Nilsson says that although technological 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. Sometimes technology — badly applied — can even get in the way of this, he argues.
By contrast, innovation is about deep inquiry and engagement with the issues and the ongoing harnessing of the knowledge needed to refine the solution, Nilsson 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 of financing from banks and the formal real-estate sector —initially, at least.
These township-inspired initiatives soon spawned opportunities that allowed the formal sector to become 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 Zama Mgwatyu, project manager at the Development Action Group a micro-development funding initiative.
Understanding the drivers of this kind of deep innovation and creating the conditions for it to take root, has been the life work of Nilsson, who now co-directs the MPhil in inclusive innovation at the UCT Graduate Business School. It is one of the few degrees in the country that explicitly encourages students to grapple with social challenges on the continent.
And, according to Nilsson, this 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 startups or bigger more bureaucratic organisations that resist innovation. Badri Zolfaghari, a researcher in the field of organisational behaviour at the UCT Graduate School of Business, and Nilsson’s co-director on the MPhil, points out that many of their students 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, according to Zolfaghari, is thinking locally. It’s not about ignoring the value of international knowledge and practices, but rather about understanding that these 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 says. “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, says 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 disruptors of their systems or are ready to disrupt the systems they’re operating in,” says 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.”
Morgan Morris is a freelance writer based in Cape Town