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Placing bets on action: Experimentation in social innovation

Posted on 24 October 2014 .
Tags: evaluation, experimentation, methods, social innovation

Triin EdovaldOver the past few decades, we have seen a significant increase in the application of business ideas and practices to non-profit and government work in many countries. Businesses are keener than ever to create social value through corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship, or socially responsible business. We’ve also witnessed the production of new terms such as social entrepreneurship, social enterprise, and social innovation – all of which juxtapose the word ‘social’ with concepts typically more closely associated with the private sector.

Social innovation, developing new ideas to better address social issues, is considered to be crucial for producing lasting social change, particularly in creating a dialogue between the public, private, and non-profit sectors. In addition to addressing unmet social need, social innovation is equally crucial for economic growth. On the one hand, some of the barriers to lasting growth (e.g. ageing population) can only be overcome with the help of social innovation. On the other hand, there has been an increase in demands for economic growth that enhances human relationships and wellbeing.

How do we know that a novel solution to a social problem is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or fairer than what is already in place? This is where experimentation comes in. It offers means to test the validity of new programmes, policies and practices by collecting evidence about the real impact on people.

In social policy, experimentation is where two main actors – policymakers and evaluators – come together. Policymakers are often the ones designing the policy intervention and supporting its implementation. Evaluators, however, are the ones often contributing to the design of the policy but mainly designing and implementing the experiment. There are many examples of social innovation that bring these different actors together. For example, the Youth Contract for 16-17 year olds not in education, employment or training (NEET) evaluation that  aims to engage those young people who are hardest to reach and support them into NEET. The results of evaluation show encouraging results.

Experimentation is not only about assessing the efficacy or effectiveness of potential solutions to social issues or exploring improvement in social outcomes. It’s also about social returns; innovative solutions need to be both evidence-and results-oriented. Experimentation helps us to get a step closer to conditions where their impact was achieved or can be measured. It also informs us of whether to scale up and diffuse the innovative ideas (if the results prove convincing) or whether a promising idea that seemed good on paper has fallen at this stage.

All in all, experimentation has a crucial role in addressing societal challenges effectively within a tight budget, informing strategic social investments, and strengthening evidence-based knowledge in policy-making. Furthermore, we can use experimentation to source innovative ideas. 

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