Social innovation toolkit: How to think in new boxes.

15.07.2013 Blog

How does a not-for-profit organisation or NGO go about working innovatively, and find new solutions to complex social problems? Although cases of innovative projects are all around us, these anecdotes may not help organisations be more systematic about innovation. Project innovation: Social innovation toolkit has just been launched as a response to this problem, providing a framework that can be used by mission driven organisations to work innovatively. The overarching aim of the project is “to encourage people to deeply understand the underlying causes of the varied social issues and seek out creative strategies that might redefine their goals, reframe their programs and ventures, and suggest unique solutions that have greater impact than more traditional approaches.”

The project is the result of a collaboration between the Teacher’s College of Columbia University, the creative agency Leroy + Clarkson, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Young Foundation.

The toolkit consists of four components: innovation mindset, stories, methods and skills. These are outlined on the project website which is both easy to navigate and pleasing to the eye.  As well as a simple site structure and attractive layout it offers advice that can perhaps be summarised as follows: to think differently, you need to work differently. According to the toolkit, organisations must:

1) Develop an innovative mindset.
Before looking outwards to the world of social problems, an organisation needs to reflect on its own practices. In particular, its theory of change needs to be supported by the methods and tools it uses to achieve its social mission.  According to the project team, “organisations operate on frequencies that define the taken for granted ways of thinking and acting on a daily basis. Organizational frequencies determine what seems like effective movement towards achieving outcomes as well as what gets noted as creative or innovative amendments to those approaches. Frequencies include the language used to talk about problems and solutions, workspaces, and temporal rhythms of work.” The first task is to identify the ‘frequency’ that an organisation operates on. These could be: the 'bureaucratic frequency',  made up of an organisation’s unquestioned habits and routines and language;  the 'creative frequency', made up of activities that break up these habitual processes, and the 'innovative frequency', made up of actions that break up taken for granted assumptions in existing thought and action. Second, an organisation needs to bring together research, thought and action instead of treating them as separate: a combination termed as 'deep thinking'. Third, the toolkit suggests that the definition of impact needs to be expanded beyond just the immediate outcomes of a project.

2) Adopt Sideways Learning.
According to the project team, “sideways learning is also known as lateral learning, horizontal learning, and peer-to-peer learning.” Essentially, this means carrying out research to better understand issues in order to develop potential solutions: “sideways learning involved networking, community exchange and the creation of participatory cultures, where may different stakeholders across typical roles and responsibilities form learning communities to better understand problems and define possible solutions.” The methods they highlight include: question, survey, interview, data analysis and self-reflection.

3) Use methods that foster participation.
Another important plank of the toolkit is participation. Public participation is necessary both to better understand the needs of communities but also to engage those communities in the development of solutions: “Through a process of creation, stakeholders will better represent their unique perspectives to assist in naming problems within communities and brainstorm potential solutions that catalyse social change.” They provide in-depth accounts of how to use the following ‘methods’: dialogue, create, presentation, critique and stewardship.

4) Embrace Competition.
To many, innovation and competition go hand in hand. This toolkit highlights the motivating force competition can provide. Organisations need to create a space where ideas can be shared and incentives provided for people to bring forward their perspective. Incentives, such as prizes, can also reduce barriers to participation and keep participants engaged. Here, methods include brainstorm, facilitation, cross-sector analysis, network and space.

Innovators have classically emphasised the old adage of 'thinking outside of the box.' However boxes can be useful: they provide a structure to think around. This is why toolkits such as this one are important. Developed using a wide range of expertise, this toolkit goes beyond just the anecdotal and provides a practical framework that organisations can use to 'do' innovation. As a result, social innovation becomes more accessible to any organisation or individual that wishes to participate in it. To view the toolkit, visit