Trends in incubating social innovation

In this, my final semester of coursework in my M.Des., I’ve been studying ‘socialX‘. As the final official piece of my independent study on the subject, I chose to specifically look at the different ways in which organizations are supporting or incubating social innovators/entrepreneurs and their projects.

Introduction & context:

My conversations with Eli Malinsky and Tonya Surman from the Centre for Social Innovation were central in helping me find direction in the early stages of this work. (Thank you!) I haven’t been able to take this as far as I would’ve liked — not so far, anyway. Some of the threads of this research carry into the (like-a-thesis-but-smaller) “major project” which I’m working on this summer.I learned an enormous amount through this work, and while I’ve focused on recent initiatives (generally less than 1 or 2 years old), I believe that there are some insights here which may continue to be valuable to others.

This is (by necessity) a small research project, but it’s on a very large subject. I’ve therefore not attempted to be comprehensive, and consequently won’t be making any far-reaching claims. I’ve held a preference for comparatively new initiatives, and those which I’ve seen mentioned in my immediate circles. (I had initially anticipated making personal contact with some of the leaders of the initiatives I’ve looked at, and knowing someone in common may have facilitated making contact.)

At Tonya’s suggestion, I kept a list of sources (all websites) I found while doing this work. I’ve added this list to another blog post.

Four current practices:

What are interesting and/or inspiring current practices in the support of social innovation (or in support of other kinds of innovation, but potentially relevant to social innovation)? (And specifically methods which provide more than simply financial support.)Four general techniques emerged as common current practices: co-location, challenges, intensives, and embedded researchers.

Co-location: In recognition of the roles of emergence, serendipity, community and interpersonal relationships to innovation, some organizations have focused on creating environments which maximize these, by bringing together like-minded people and organizations under one roof. Beyond simple workspace, equipment, workshops and events, and other programming is offered. Co-location as a method isn’t new, but it’s expanding to new sectors: CSI is focused on the public good; MaRS, on a range of sectors; Rock Health on transformative mobile health apps; and QB3 on bioscience.

Challenges are contests, in which entrants submit an idea or prototype, and compete to win monetary awards. Most challenges don’t offer any significant support besides cash awards, and so they fall outside of the original parameter of this research. (I’ll mention them again later, because as turns out, they’re an interesting contrast to the other practices.)

Intensives can take several forms. The Unreasonable Institute offers a 6-week residential summer program. Rock Health offers co-working space and a (mandatory) 5-month workshop program. MoJo will run a “HackFest” (presumably a couple of days in length) late this summer.

Embedded researchers: Several programs embed experienced researchers/practitioners in organizations, in order to take advantage of their experience (and tacit knowledge) to navigate complex situations. Different programs are using it to address complexity in different sectors: UW’s EiR program helps academic researchers with commercialization, the Health Launchpad looks for innovation opportunities in health institutions, the Radical Redesign program addresses social problems by studying families’ problems, and MoJo seeks to bring innovation to newsrooms.

Organizations & Programs:

Complete information about these programs is available on the indicated website; these are short, totally oversimplified summaries.Centre for Social Innovation: Offers small private office spaces, full-time or part-time desks and shared facilities to applicants who are accepted based on their work being “socially, economically, culturally or environmentally meaningful.” In addition to revenue from tenants, CSI is supported financially by private-sector investors, foundations, the public sector, and through community bonds. (CSI has lots of other initiatives on the go; for my purposes here, I’m just considering their co-location offering.)

MaRS: Offers private office spaces and medical research labs, to startups and other innovation-oriented organizations. (Like CSI, MaRS is involved in many other initiatives. Here, I’m just considering their co-location offering.)

QB3 MB Innovation Center: Offers office and biomedical research lab facilities for lease for startups. Tenants also take advantage of the center’s social network and profile.

Rock Health: An initiative to incubate new products in the “interactive health space.” Accepted applicants will receive US$20,000, 5 months of mentoring, support services and office space in Silicon Valley, and access to venture capitalists. Funded by venture capital firms.

Unreasonable Institute: A 6-week training and incubation program for social entrepreneurs. Funded by social venture finance firms, who also participate in the program.

Good Company Ventures: A program for blended value entrepreneurs, incubating their projects for two days per week for 10 weeks. Funded by venture firms looking for blended value.

Health Launchpad: This program places entrepreneurs in healthcare institutions. Their role is to act as talent scout, to design new cost-effective services from the bottom-up, to act as navigator and connector, to secure funding for new initiatives, and ultimately to change the culture of the organization to embrace innovation. A program of the Young Foundation.

University of Washington Entrepreneur-in-Residence program: This program places successful entrepreneurs inside the university for 6-9 months, to develop relationships with academic researchers, to identify opportunities, and to help the university achieve greater success in commercialization.

Radical Redesign: A design process in which a team with diverse backgrounds (design, policy, business and community) collaborate to address complex social problems. The team uses a co-design process to understand and intervene in a situation through rapid prototypes, while anticipating sustainability and scalability. Developed by InWithFor, this process is now being used in TACSI’s Family by Family program.

MoJo: An initiative of the Mozilla Foundation and Knight Foundation, to foster innovation in newsrooms. The first stage is a challenge. The winners are invited to participate in a “HackFest,” and finally 5 participants are selected as Fellows and placed for several months in a major newsroom. Funded by the Knight Foundation.


It hadn’t been my intent to come up with categories of methods to describe current practices in the incubation of social innovation. It was after reading about the development of MoJo that my thinking went in that direction. MoJo hasn’t launched yet, but its development has been very much out in the open, visible on the Mozilla wiki, various blogs and on Twitter. The organizers have been actively soliciting participation and feedback from the public. The roadmap for the project hasn’t yet been published in a detailed form, but presumably will this Monday, when it’s scheduled to launch. Its three-phase approach seemed overly complex to me at first, but by reading some of the blog posts explaining their rationale, it became clear that each phase was included for good reason.Over the past year or so, my attitude towards ‘challenges’ has turned somewhat negative. To some extent, my feelings about ‘intensives’ has as well. It’s (I now realize) because I’ve become much more interested in “hairy” problems. In that light, the results of challenges and intensives sometimes seem a bit naïve; they’re created in a rush for markets that aren’t well-understood by the creators.

Clearly, I was missing the point. The goal of challenges and intensives isn’t to come up with final solutions. The goals are to inspire new and creative thinking, to bring attention to an issue, to identify creative entrepreneurs, and to build buzz. Once that work has been done, a community of interest has developed, a common language is emerging, and people are increasingly on the same page, taking on the “hairy” problems is a more viable prospect.

I’m (you may have guessed) most inspired right now by the projects which are embedding researchers in institutions. Attempts to inspire innovation in a field would almost certainly benefit (and perhaps require) the use of all four of the methods identified above. Part of the challenge is to identify which method would do the most to address the field’s current state with respect to innovation. (This may not be knowable; it’s dependent on the on-the-same-page-ness of practitioners.)

So based on all this, I’m going to propose that:

  • Challenges produce ideas
  • Intensives produce models
  • Embedded research produces validation (or, more likely, invalidation)

(Co-location produces: on-the-same-page-ness? experience with and capacity for collaboration? acceleration? momentum? all of the above?)


My intent with this project was to continue to learn about “socialX” (social innovation, social enterprise, etc.), by looking at some of the different programs which have been developed to support it. Given more time, I’d have:

  • discussed my findings with ‘thought leaders’ in the sector, for their feedback
  • researched more initiatives (both past and present), which might validate or invalidate my proposal about which approaches produce which kinds of value
  • created more rigid definitions for the four categories of methods
  • looked for methods which don’t fall easily into my four categories; especially seeking ones which are complimentary or subsequent to ‘embedding researchers’
Thanks to Nabil Harfoush, my supervisor on this independent study, for his valuable advice and insight.
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One Response to Trends in incubating social innovation

  1. gabe says:

    If I’d known about this program, I might’ve included it:

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