Social Innovation: A Definition of Opportunity

When asked recently to define social innovation I replied rather off-handedly it’s a combination of the old, the new and the surprising.

It’s not much of a definition but then again the ambiguity might be useful. Definitions all too often constrain us when at their best they’re meant to enlarge us. A good definition should make us curious, to ponder, to pause. It should help us see the road ahead with fresh eyes, perhaps even to experience wonder

Social innovation is simply one of the latest descriptors of the timeless human pursuit to make the world a better place. It is a bundle of new learnings, technologies and methods blended with the best traditional approaches to social changes. And of course accompanied by a dash of surprise. Thank heaven for surprise — it covers a multitude of human foibles, certainties and predictions.

Social innovation isn’t so much a definition as an opportunity to:

  • think with an open mind
  • work with an open heart
  • leverage all sources of financing
  • refresh our methods and technologies and
  • spread solutions that work.

The greatest opportunity is to change the way we work together. Particularly to expand who we work with. It’s time to admit our societal and planetary challenges are too formidable to be resolved solely by rallying loyal supporters. It’s time to embrace those who have hurt and betrayed us and who we have hurt and betrayed.

(Thanks to Ben Weinlick, founder of ThinkJar Collective for the image.)

About the Lead Author

Al Etmanski
Al Etmanski
Al Etmanski is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and author. ( (@aletmanski ) His latest books are Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social Innovation and The Power of Disability: 10 Lessons for Surviving, Thriving and Changing the World. He is a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD), an Ashoka fellow, senior fellow Social Innovation Generation and Co-Chair of BC Partners for Social Impact. Al is co-founder of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN), a family run social enterprise assisting families address the financial and social well-being of their relative with a disability, particularly after their parents die. He proposed and led the successful campaign to establish the world’s first savings plan for people with disabilities, the Registered Disability Savings Plan. John McKnight endorsed Al's book Impact by saying: Impact is a chronicle of the wisdom Etmanski has gained in exploring the keys to long-term social change. His findings lead us out of the past and onto a pathway for progress in the 21st century. Once describing Al as an Abundant Community Pioneer, Peter Block wrote: Al Etmanski is one of North America's best social inventors. He has looked beyond traditional institituions and their failures to create new means of achieving a better life. His analysis of the forms of organization that enable local communities while avoiding rigid hierarchies is groundbreaking. His book A Good Life is a wonderful and practical guide to the potential for neighbors to grow strong through the power of hospitality. Michael J. Fox said of Al's latest book, The Power of Disability: This book reminds us of what we have in common: the power to create a good life for ourselves and for others, no matter what the world has in store for us.

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