Just Read: “Social Innovation” and Social Innovators (people who take no as a question)

What’s this?

As I was preparing to dialogue with my colleagues in the most innovative Kaiser Permanente Labor Management Partnership (@LMPTalk) recently (see: Just Presented: Total Health and Social Innovation, with the Labor Management Partnership | Ted Eytan, MD) I came across this in a popular business magazine, and it so spoke to me that I had to do a little research, which I’m sharing here.

Why did it speak to me? Because part of my world is “innovation” “innovation” “innovation” and at times I’m not sure what people mean when they’re saying that.

The first time I heard the term in a professional setting was when a mentor, a long time ago, commented on our creation of patient-physician email by saying, “what you’re doing is very important, everyone needs to do some R & D.” At the time, I thought, “This isn’t R&D, is it? It’s just doing what has to be done.” And thus started a path to realization that I would always be 1-4 years ahead of my time…

Now everyone is calling this kind of work “innovation” and a swath of it doesn’t appeal to me as much any more; however, I don’t think it’s unimportant. That’s where social innovation comes in.

Social Innovation: Develop solutions for common needs

This paper was written in 2007 (!) and even there they contrast social innovation with the innovation of the day, which tends to be device/lifestyle/app centric:

Vast amounts of money are spent by business on innovation to meet both real and imagined consumer demands..

…contrast this with:

…design and launch new organisations and models which can better meet people’s needs for care, jobs and homes, including radical new models of schooling, health care and criminal justice.

And here’s the definition offered:

‘innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organisations whose primary purposes are social.’

Who are Social Innovators? (People who take no as a question)

My oft-stated expression is that “innovation is a lonely place” (have you seen my Walking Gallery Jacket? Read the description by @ReginaHolliday ). And it’s a place social innovators choose to be as they go through these stages:

as schopenhauer observed: ‘every truth passes through three stages. first, it is ridiculed. second, it is violently opposed. third, it is accepted as being self-evident.’

I’ve been through/go through them at various times, and secretly, they cause me to laugh, at least once a day, not because they are funny, because people are truly awesome, and it’s a joy to experience change with them, and at the same time discover allies that I never knew existed. That’s where innovation happens for me. As I said previously, 1-4 years ahead of my time…

If it helps, here’s an example from the paper:

even the spread of the car depended not just on the technology of the internal combustion engine and modern production lines, but also on a host of associated social innovations: driving schools, road markings and protocols, garages, traffic wardens and speeding tickets, and more recently, congestion charging systems.

improvements in healthcare depended on innovations in medicine (including antibiotics) and surgery (from sterilisation to keyhole surgery) but also on a host of other innovations including: public health systems to provide clean water and sewers; changing home habits to promote cleanliness in kitchens and new methods of measurement – a primary interest of florence nightingale who was
as innovative a statistician as she was a nurse.

I loved the comment about taking no as a question. It’s part of a discussion of several landmark social innovators:

although many of these ideas look obvious in retrospect they were generally met with hostility, and one of Michael Young’s characteristics (shared with many pioneers in social innovation) was, in the words of one of his collaborators, Tony Flower: ‘sheer persistence, a kind of benign ruthlessness, clutching onto an idea beyond the bitter end, always taking no as a question.’

Social Innovation Centers – Do they exist? (yes)

Yesterday’s “spread of the car” (*shudder*) is today’s “Transportation Demand Management,” (hooray!) practiced by organizations like Mobility Lab (@MobilityLabTeam), in Arlington, VA, what I would consider a social innovation center.

I also now consider the Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health (@KPTotalHealth) a social innovation center, or _the_ social innovation center in the innovation system of Kaiser Permanente. We used to say that we weren’t “the” innovation center because that title was owned by the iconic and most amazing Garfield Innovation Center (@KPGarfield).

Now we say we are both part of the innovation system of Kaiser Permanente. Garfield Center = “ideate and test,” Center for Total Health = “social innovation.” You can see it in our flickr feed, our twitter feed, and our human interaction feed, for example: Doctors are allies in the 21st Century | Ted Eytan, MD.

There’s also a comprehensive review of social innovation centers that you can find online. And now that I have scratched the surface of this area, I find there is a lot more out there then I ever knew. A quick trip to your search engine will help you find those resources. In the meantime, this paper is a good start. If you feel like you’re an innovator, but sometimes you don’t quite fit into the innovation that you’re being told about, this may be for you. If you take no as question….

In the next few days I’ll post some social innovators in health care that I know or have learned about…


Ted Eytan, MD