Innovation connotes and means different things to different people, depending on what context it is viewed at. For the purpose of this article, I’ll define Social innovation as the combination of thoughts, systems, and ideas which leverage the use of people, products, and processes in addressing complex problems in the society with the view of addressing and solving them in a sustainable way.
In business, government, and in the society at large, we are often faced with burning social issues which are often termed as “wicked problems.” These are issues which do not have a single means or method of addressing them, and will often require a synergy of ideas, thoughts, and resources to effectively tackle them.
In our bid to address social issues, we must realize that they often have deep layers of complexities surrounding them. And in addressing them, we often must immerse ourselves in those very issues in order to know how best to solve them. It is very important that in order to attempt to proffer solutions to social issues, we must first understand the nuances and unpack the layers and complexities in which these problems are embedded.
Oftentimes, money, solutions, and interventions are hastily thrown at problems, whereas the root-cause is totally different from what is easily seen, perceived, and observed. It often takes a painstaking effort and also involving beneficiaries who are often experts at what the problems are, and what is needed to solve them, for us to make any headway in our social change efforts.
As social entrepreneurs and innovators, we must constantly test our assumptions, and be ever willing to learn, test, iterate, and then start from the beginning all over again till we fully understand what we seek to achieve. Unpacking the issues surrounding homelessness, for example, may go way beyond just providing free or affordable housing. There may be deeper issues involved, and until these issues are firstly identified and fully understood, we only just may be trying to use a piece of cloth to cover a burst pipe.
In addressing social issues and innovating for change, I have discovered that the “5 Why” is often a great tool to use in troubleshooting, and getting to the root cause of issues. This process begins with the 1st question and then continues with a follow-up question which then continues until we’ve asked ourselves 5 key questions regarding this issue we intend to solve.
Using unemployment amongst youth as our wicked problem and social issue, the 1st question would be “why do we have so many many young and unemployed youths in Africa?” The response could be – “they are unemployed because there are no jobs, and some of them lack the required soft skills needed to take up some job opportunities.” The 2nd question could be – “why do they lack the necessary soft skills to take up available jobs?” And the response could be – “because these skills weren’t a major focus at tertiary institutions.” The 3rd question might then be – “why aren’t tertiary institutions paying adequate attention to the transfer of soft skills to students in order to prepare them for the future of work?” The response could be – “because it isn’t a major part of their curriculum, and there is no policy framework mandating it to be a core part of the learning process.”
As the above process continues, we begin to unpack different layers and complexities surrounding the issue of unemployment amongst African youth. A general way of solving this problem at face value could be the creation of more jobs, however, this could mean that we are only scratching the surface, and haven’t fully addressed the pain point and underlying issues relating to youth unemployment.
From the above process, the key takeaways are that young people lack the soft skills to take up available jobs and that institutions of learning are probably not paying attention to preparing students for the future of work through focusing on transfer of soft skills. Therefore, to fully address this problem, we might need to start from the bottom layer and solve the issue all the way to the top, and rather than a top-down approach which might only be palliative, and not fully address the problem or its root cause.
It is necessary that as we begin to design solutions to social issues and wicked problems in the society, we should always endeavor to unpack the layers surrounding the issues and also involve the individuals who are affected by these problems, as they are often knowledgeable about those problems, as well as best ways in solving them.
Innovating for change is often a long and painstaking process, however, it is very necessary if we are to come up with lasting solutions to social issues, and which addresses the root cause and not just its symptoms alone.