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Is it possible for social innovations to tackle both the symptoms of social need as well as the root causes that underlie them?

Jeremy Millard, Danish Technological Institut/ DTI, Denmark

Some of the outputs from the work of the SI-DRIVE project on #socialinnovation for #poverty reduction and sustainable development have led to a number of interesting, if not surprising, results (Millard 2017). First, tackling #poverty, whether in Europe or elsewhere, is far from only being about the lack of money. Of course a basic level of income is essential but it is also about being left out of mainstream society. Hence the ‘poor’ may not want for the very basic survival needs of life, but if their income or circumstances mean they are not able to participate in society’s normal activities, they become marginalised and vulnerable, which means their lives are also poor socially, culturally and economically. #Poverty is thus highly complex and is often inextricably linked to other forms of exclusion such as #gender, ethnic and power relationships.

Further compounding factors are also important, for example given that scraping together even a basic income often requires the poor to take multiple jobs. They typically experience precarious structures within which to live and work, so that they typically expend all their effort simply surviving from day to day or week to week, and don’t have sufficient time or energy to plan for and invest in their own, their family’s or their community’s future (Mullainathan & Shafir 2013). For example, the unpredictabilities of the ‘gig’ economy and piece-work mean that many people do not know where their next income will come from on a weekly or even daily basis. This is not the traditional ‘#poverty trap’, normally thought of as a self-reinforcing mechanism which sees the individual sink further into hopelessness through their own lack of effort due to laziness or low intelligence. Instead, it recognises that poor people, much more than others in society, typically have to contend with a highly complex and unpredictable social and economic environment. This shows the need for structural readjustments, laws, regulations, cross-agency and non-government collaborations and similar, in addition to directly tackling the symptoms of the pressing need as quickly as possible. The goal should be to make the poor’s lives as easy and as simple as possible so they can focus on helping to solve their own problems of scarcity rather than grappling with a complex system that is often not contextually embedded (Millard, Holtgrewe, Hochgerner, 2017). If this was done, this would both help the #socialinnovation itself to scale and spread, as well as push changes in underlying societal frameworks away from being part of the problem and towards contributing to real social change.

Another rather surprising finding arising from SI-DRIVE was that many more than expected #socialinnovation cases in the SI-DRIVE database are abandoning the traditional focus purely on trying to solve an immediate problem of #socialneed, such as low income. This can, of course, be important, but many instead start from the possibilities inherent in the capacities and aspirations already existing, rather than what might be ‘missing’ (Millard 2017). Indeed, other recent research has led to similar conclusions, such as the WILCO project ( which found that investing in capabilities rather than deficits is an important trend in service innovation, whilst a conclusion from innovation studies more generally noted that most innovations don’t come out of problem solving, but instead arise from dreams, visions and possibilities (Dijkgraaf 2017).

An SI-DRIVE case study that illustrates some of these often complex inter-relationships is a #socialinnovation run by a civil society organisation (CSO) in northern Ghana.  It saw an opportunity to use the talents of local inhabitants possessing some basic #education by training them as so-called ‘barefoot’ teachers to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills to children in nearby villages who had no possibility of any other form of #education. However, instead of focusing purely on facilitating children’s #education, the CSO soon realised that the actual key to success was to work on changing local power structures through wide and painstaking consensus and capacity building, particularly by empowering women in village life, to ensure broad acceptance and consensus that tackling both #education and #gender issues is good for all. From this, in turn, other complementary innovations were simultaneously both required and enabled, such as involving women in local entrepreneurship schemes and supporting local radio stations and media productions as job opportunities for some of the locally educated youth. This example also illustrates the need to address, as far as possible, some of the structural root causes, in this case local power structures and #gendered roles, in order to meet a number of immediate #socialneeds, like child #education and #poverty resulting from informal and intermittent #employment.



Dijkgraaf, R. (2017), Director and Leon Levy Professor, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, USA,  reported at the European Commission Conference “Research and innovation -- shaping our future”, 3 July 2017, Brussels.

Millard, J (2017) Summary report on social innovation for #poverty reduction and sustainable development, deliverable D10.4, SI-DRIVE:

Millard J, Holtgrewe U, Hochgerner J (2017) Addressing objectives, social demands, societal challenges and systemic change. In Howaldt J, Schröder A, Butzin A, Rehfeld D (Eds): Towards a General Theory and Typology of Social Innovation, SI-DRIVE Deliverable D1.6:

Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E. (2013): Why having too little means so much, Allen Lane, Penguin Group, London.