Social innovation: tackling poverty through social change

Simple innovations like rainwater harvesting can have huge benefits for communities Copyright: Flickr/Sustainable Sanitation

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Innovation researcher Maria Clara Couto Soares calls for a new debate on expanding the reach of grassroots social innovations.

The importance of innovation for development is widely recognised. Yet the benefits of innovation are not readily or equally distributed among or within countries. In fact, there has never been so much innovation with so little benefit for far-reaching social welfare. 

Innovation has created immense capabilities for improving life conditions, in areas such as food production and information technologies, but these coexist with growing poverty rates, widespread hunger and poor health conditions for much of the world’s population.

One reason for this is the issue of global power relations, which influence how markets are organised and who benefits from technological progress. Innovation systems are not neutral — the effects of purely market-led science and technology efforts and associated innovations tend to aggravate existing inequalities.

This needs to change. The process of innovation and its place in development must be revisited and aligned with social concerns. 

Seeking alternatives

In the current age, financial capital and transnational corporations have an unprecedented concentration of power. With market-based philosophy dominating as the logic for social organisation, technological progress tends to put pressure on natural resources and societies through a perverse combination of fast accumulation of capital, together with deepening inequalities and environmental degradation.

Social and political movements have encouraged alternatives to this system, based on solidarity, social inclusion and ecological preservation. Social innovation is one such alternative: a process of societal change that not only improves living conditions, but also encourages new forms of social organisation. It paves the way for the emergence of new social actors — family farmers, for example — and treats the fight against poverty and inequality not as a residual or compensatory issue, but a priority.

From this perspective, social innovation is not merely an act of making available ‘appropriate’ technologies for poor people, but a social and systemic process of developing and introducing new products, processes, technologies and organisational practices within society that are effective solutions for social change. 

Interventions designed as poverty solutions that lack a systemic approach and ignore participatory methodologies tend to fail to be sustainable in the medium and long term. Social innovation, on the other hand, has a clear focus on social inclusion. It is built and re-applied through processes that are proactive, collective, democratic and characterised by solidarity. And it occurs alongside a strong community awareness of how to deal with problems collectively.

Lessons from Brazil

In Brazil, there are several examples of social innovations being successfully re-applied — enabling access to water in semi-arid regions, providing food security in poor areas, and supplying credit for people previously excluded.

One such project is ASA — the Brazilian Semi-Arid Articulation — a network working with small farmers and civil society institutions to help democratise access to water in semi-arid regions.

ASA’s first social innovation was a cistern for capturing rainwater. Easy to build and at low cost, the cistern was developed using experimentation and local knowledge, and the process of technological improvement took place through dialogue with universities and civil society organisations.

The mobilisation of many people to discuss collectively ways of solving specific problems resulted in the strengthening of family farmers, women and local organisations, as well as their capacity to influence public policy. To date, more than 385,000 cisterns have been built with governmental support, serving almost 2 million people.

ASA currently includes over one thousand organisations, which do not restrict themselves to fighting for water security, but aim to develop a process of social transformation that links different actors, territories and regions around an integrated development proposal for the semi-arid region of northeastern Brazil.

Creating the right environment

Social innovation means new products, techniques and methodologies that are ‘re-applicable’, developed in collaboration with the community and presenting effective solutions for social transformation.

The idea of the re-applicability of innovations is different from the scaling up of innovation. Re-applicability implies that when a social innovation is used in a different context to where it was developed, it will necessarily be recreated and adapted for this new context, bringing new values, knowledge and meanings.

This has concrete implications. It means that expanding the reach of small-scale, grassroots innovation requires efforts to build political and institutional capacities in support of the process. It may require interaction with various public and private entities such as local authorities, universities and other organisations specialising in technical assistance and training, as well as funding institutions, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and private companies.

Often, policy priorities need to be reshaped and political will constructed to allow the changes necessary for re-applicability on a larger scale. This might involve dealing with potential conflicts that may emerge.

For example, in the semi-arid regions of Brazil, political parties commonly use water access as a way of eliciting poor families’ political support — revealing how expanding the reach of ASA social innovations sometimes interferes with local power structures.

Building institutional structures that can support the re-application of social innovations requires social actors capable of driving such initiatives and ensuring their success. Grassroots participation, as well as strong organisation, mobilisation and networking, are key ingredients for success. 


Maria Clara Couto Soares is senior researcher at RedeSist at the Economics Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Maria Clara can be contacted at clara@ie.ufrj.br.