The current COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated – in a very short space of time – the great potential of social innovation to aid society. The European Commission guide to social innovation defines “social innovation as ‘the development and implementation of new ideas (products, services, and models) to meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations”.
We can just name a few of the recent innovations:
Companies are changing their delivery modes
Many retailers are turning to home deliveries. Health care providers and professionals are developing remote services for advising and monitoring of patients at home. Arts and crafts schools are producing home kits. Gyms and fitness studios broadcast online classes. In China, Kuaishou – a social video platform valued at $28 billion – promoted online education offerings to compensate for school and university closures.
”The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how society can innovate at speed. And while the focus, for now, is on helping each other, this social innovation demonstrates how we can all make an impact. Let’s start thinking now about how we can use this to improve society going forward, ”
Companies are shifting production towards ventilators and other essential equipment
In North America, automotive suppliers are collaborating to produce ventilators. In many European countries, small businesses are turning to produce masks and other protective equipment. Different types of companies like US breweries including the giant Anheuser-Busch and Central-Eastern European oil companies including Poland’s Orlen are producing hand sanitizers.
Organizations are developing new technology solutions
In Italy, a 3D printing company called Isinnova quickly developed a design for producing plastic parts for hospital ventilators – much faster and cheaper to make than the industrial alternatives. The Austrian Red Cross has developed a phone app for virus contact tracing (pictured below), which alerts people about having come in contact with someone who has contracted the virus, and the app is now used by hundreds of thousands of people.
These are desperate solutions in desperate times. What we are still missing is a future vision of how social innovations can help to avert the next pandemic and to make our world a safer place.
In the aftermath of previous epidemics such as avian flu, expert surveys suggested that the pharmaceutical sector is the key sector in terms of driving innovation related to pandemics and provides ‘the main pathway to mitigating the risk of a pandemic outbreak’ (Wallace and Ràfols, 2018).
Pharmaceutical companies are, of course, at the forefront of developing vaccines and medical treatments. At the same time, the narrow profit motive of the pharmaceutical industry constrains innovation and the social impact of pharmaceutical companies.
Furthermore, to prevent and mitigate another pandemic, we will require government policy at the domestic and global levels, such as early warning systems, stockpiles of medical equipment, cross-border solidarity mechanisms, and a reform of the World Health Organization.
Government agencies can also play a key part in social innovation, for example through new types of budgetary processes and finance provision like dedicated innovation funds, hybrid financing models and financial incentives for successful innovation, and through creating public spaces for social innovation, such as the Korean idea of an Imagination Bank to draw in public ideas for improving public services and many other forms of democratic participation.
But social innovation can come from many other organizations, including charities, companies, universities, online groups, and local community groups. There are many methods of social innovation, including open-source soliciting of innovative ideas and ideas banks, donor platforms, and other interactive platforms, social enterprises, and other companies with a social mission, inter-household reciprocity, and forms of local exchange, and so on.
Universities could play an important role in this innovation process, through their research and experimentation, web-based platforms, and alumni networks. For example, If universities have a wealth of experts in areas such as health and wellbeing, social enterprise, development studies, and so on.
This is the time for academics to start working together across disciplinary and other boundaries.
Today and now, we need to focus on how we can support each other in these difficult times. But we can all start to brainstorm about how we can innovate for a better world the day after tomorrow.