Don’t Call Me A Social Innovator

Pritpal S Tamber

October 2, 2017

Why I bristle at that term (and the need for more discipline around business model discovery)

I got called a ‘social innovator’ the other day and it made me bristle. I’ve been trying to work out why and think there are two reasons.

The first is that I don’t find it helpful to think of innovation in two buckets – social and, I presume, non-social, which I think means ‘personal’ or ‘private’ or ‘commercial’. Bifurcating innovation in such a manner excuses commercial innovation from considering its social responsibilities. I think that’s wrong and mustn’t be excused by nomenclature.

The second is that, in general, I have found self-professed social innovators a little underwhelming. There seems to be the idea that just because one is seeking ‘to do good’, one can be sloppy or vague or ill-disciplined. I’ve been in meetings with such people and found them imprecise, not respecting of deadlines, and without the kind of ruthlessness in execution that’s needed to survive the economic perilousness of true innovation.

Business Models

My work may be about understanding the health challenges facing those in challenging social circumstances but I don’t want to be called a ‘social innovator’.

I think the true bifurcation is between innovation within existing business models and innovation seeking new business models. The latter includes – but is not limited to – changes required in the social space where there are multiple systems with non-overlapping funding models.

The absence of clear funding doesn’t stop innovation amongst the commercially minded. For them, the job of work is to create something new, extol its value, and then work out who’ll pay for it, and how much. Once they understand that, they’ll have established a market and a business model within it. Whether that market is sustainable then comes down to whether the revenues possible within that market meet (and preferably exceed) the costs of production. As the market matures, it’s likely that the business models will change along the way.

Finding Social Money

In the so-called social space, I think the prevailing challenge is to find and access money that’s ‘social’ in nature, by which I mean intended for the civic good. Typically, that means tax-based funds but it doesn’t have to. For instance, this week, I’m speaking in Greenville, NC, where the local Chambers of Commerce and health system are partnering to help make the city’s citizens healthier. Both are private entities but they’re looking to do something for the common good, the civic space.

Some people bristle at the idea of commercial entities entering the civic fray but lots of people are tired of waiting for public bodies to get their act together. We’ve been talking about how systems are overly-silo’d for ages – perhaps decades – but too little is happening. My view is the more experimentation, and the more experimenters, the better. And if folks worried about the commercial sector entering the civic space are that worried, perhaps it’ll put a rocket up their proverbials to get their act together.

So-called ‘social innovators’, in my view, need to be more disciplined about business model discovery. If they did – and acquired a new collective noun – I’d be happy to be included in their gang.

Pritpal S Tamber

I'm an independent writer, researcher and consultant focussing on community health and medical information. I'm a former physician, medical editor and medical publisher, and also the former Physician Editor of TEDMED. I began my career at The BMJ. For more information, see the About page.

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