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Observing Social Innovation (step 2 in design thinking)

November 22, 2008

We talked about understanding the concept behind social innovation. Instinctively, this calls for observation as well. It is one thing to understand a concept and another to actually look at something, with no prior judgements in mind and observe the different elements that holds it together. In the case for Social Innovation, it is not as easy as we don’t have a product or a service where we simply watch people using it, it is a bigger more complex concept that we need to observe truly how it evolves in a certain area and who’s involved (and what they do with it).

In the previous example of Grameen Bank and Dr. Muhamad Younus, the process evovled from the Professor and and a small village in Bangladesh, to involve many villages, many professors, banks, government, companies, and the whole world got involved. Observing and immersing oneself in the process will open up on the methods that it needed to be created successfully. One would understand how each stakeholder involved attached him/herself to the process and what they went through. It usually is never the same for two people.

Another simple tool to observing the process is by interviewing. In writing his book “The Opposable Mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking”, Roger Martin interviewed Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat inc, the world’s dominant provider of Linux software. Bob Young saw two dominant business models for software entrepreneurs: companies who invested heavily in research and development and charged hefty fees for updated versions, and those who provided cheap softwares made a small profit each time a new version was released. In his social innovative mind, Bob Young incorporated aspects of each model: as ideologically committed to the open source movement, he decided Red Hat’s software would continute to be free. At the same time, he would profit by establishging an ongoing service relationship with his customers. This new model established Red Hat’s dominance and assured its financial strength (annual revenue of $400 million). Not bad for social innovation!

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