For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a societal challenge: It affects us all, but it affects us differently. Like other societal challenges, such as the climate crisis, economic inequality, and racial injustice, it magnifies old and new social problems and brutally exposes weaknesses in our systems.

How can we make progress on these challenges and at the same time reinvigorate and modernize the institutional infrastructure of society? What we need are pragmatic, flexible, and scalable approaches. However, the practice of social innovation seems stuck in a paradigm with distinct divisions of labor between the state and public sectors, civil society, social enterprises, and businesses.

We believe that social innovation needs a makeover.

It is time to move beyond thinking of heroic individuals, the state, civil society, or business as singular agents of social change. Rather, we need to experiment with social innovation based on collective action facilitated by digital technology. Forging alliances, building multistakeholder networks, or adopting collective-impact formats where various actors—industry, NGOs, and governments—collaborate are steps in this direction.

Recent collective efforts to build digital platforms to pool resources or facilitate interaction among grantees are helpful but have rarely included citizens as collaborators. Sidelining citizens in this work makes social innovation processes unproductive and, arguably, less effective. Citizens are affected by social problems, and they have skills and expertise to develop solutions. Collectively, for example, they have contributed to the world’s largest encyclopedia (Wikipedia) and helped astronomers to categorize galaxies (Zooniverse). Citizens are central to this work.

How can we combine the spirit of collective action and digitally enabled cocreation with orchestrated experimentation to develop new approaches to social innovation?

We believe that recent experiments on open and participatory approaches offer important insights for rejuvenating the practice of social innovation. They also raise important questions about how well-intended initiatives might lead to unintended forms of exclusion.

Read the full article about social innovation by Johanna Mair and Thomas Gegenhuber at Stanford Social Innovation Review.