Why social innovation creates prosperous societies and what we can learn from this

Oscar Kimanuka

By Oscar Kimanuka

We have reached a time when we can confirm that what is needed today to resolve our intractable challenges are solutions that foster sustainable economic growth.

Rarely has the need for new ways of thinking been more glaring. From the sluggish economic growth and financial instability of the last several years for the developed world to the perennial issues of political upheavals, resource crises, hunger, poverty, and disease, people have come to realize that the old ways of doing things no longer work.

A friend of mine says “business as usual approach” to resolving critical challenges that face us cannot work anymore. And right he is!

Whether one lives in the developed or the developing world, the fates of Asians, Africans, Europeans, and everyone on this increasingly crowded planet are inextricably interwoven.

Our society is in serious and desperate need of a fundamental transformation of social, economic, and cultural, arrangements. The old paradigm of government aid is simply inadequate to the challenge.

What we need instead are creative and innovative solutions for fostering sustainable growth, securing jobs, and increasing competitive abilities.

Social innovation is helping to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems with new solutions such as fair trade, distance learning, mobile money transfer, restorative justice, our own Gacaca justice system, and zero-carbon housing.

In the process of creating solutions, it is also profoundly changing beliefs, basic practices, resources, and social power structures.

Social innovation provides a unique opportunity to step back from a narrow way of thinking about social enterprises, business engagement, and philanthropy and to recognize instead the interconnectedness of various factors and stakeholders to use one of the most used buzzwords!

In Africa, we have made considerable advances in social and economic growth over the past 10 years.

Acceleration in Africa’s economic growth reflects fundamental improvements in macroeconomic policies, an improving business environment, and growing political stability in many African countries.

Equally important, but less recognized reasons for the African success story are an increased focus on science, technology, and innovations to drive economic growth, and an increased focus on social innovations and social engineering to improve human well-being.

Societies that enjoy economic affluence are not truly prosperous if that affluence benefits only a privileged few, rather than being spread throughout society.

That is because social and economic prosperity are intricately linked and highly dependent on each other. Social prosperity requires conditions like good health, well-being, and access to lifelong learning, social inclusion, safety, security, and citizenship.

Economic prosperity requires conditions like workforce development, job creation, fiscal responsibility, a green economy, infrastructure development, and energy access. Effective coordination and collaboration between the two will result in a lasting social fabric that supports sustainable prosperity and self-reliance.

Social innovation has become even more important for sustainable economic growth in recent times. This is partly because some of the barriers to lasting and sustainable economic growth, (such as climate change, youth unemployment, aging populations, and increased social conflicts) can be overcome only with the help of social innovation, and partly because of rising demands for alternative models of economic growth that enhance rather than damage human relationships and well-being.

Rwanda, and in many ways the entire global community, is transitioning to a phase where innovation will no longer be shaped by industries but will rather be informed by markets and society’s demand for products, systems, and services focused on knowledge and learning.

Against this backdrop, businesses are looking to social entrepreneurs and social enterprises that pursue financial sustainability and social principle for guidance and new techniques.

Rwanda is among the first African countries to develop Innovation Endowment Fund in supporting its innovators demonstrates its belief that investment in research and development in innovation is a national priority for development and a key condition to building the foundation for a smooth transition to a knowledge-driven economy.

We need greater recognition by East African Community governments and institutions of the fundamental role of social innovation in science and technology on the development agenda.

Our Universities in East Africa should and in fact must begin to see the integration of social innovation into research activities and have centers for social innovation and entrepreneurship to promote and embolden social and environmental change agents.

Many of the most important social challenges facing the world require paradigm shift that cuts across organizational, sectoral, and disciplinary boundaries.

These challenges require innovative ways of applying new technology along with new forms of organization, new network processes to build human and social capital, and new grassroots-based solutions.

The good news is that social innovation is a remarkably creative field. It is growing in popularity and is having a global impact. Unfortunately, it is still a nascent field, only beginning to take shape and move beyond anecdotes and posturing.

Emerging economies in Africa are encouraging investment in large industrial enterprises, but it’s equally important to invest in the smaller social enterprises that are becoming an integral part of the economy, mimicking the true African society—a focus on communities, people, and social structures as measures of prosperity.

By encouraging social innovation, policymakers strive to pursue a triple triumph: a triumph for society and individuals by providing services that are of high quality, beneficial, and affordable to users and that add value to their daily lives; a triumph for governments by making the provision of those services more sustainable in the long term; and finally, a triumph for industry by creating new business opportunities and new entrepreneurship.

The writer is a consultant and visiting lecturer at the RDF Senior Command and Staff College, Nyakinama.


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