September 2008

"Finally, social innovation at scale comes from systems that give the public tools to innovate for themselves. Brokering this transition is what many innovation intermediaries in social innovation are passionately committed to."

Matthew Horne

This article describes four key elements of social innovation: i) social technology; ii) innovation intermediaries; iii) people who drive innovation; and iv) openness. By taking experiences from social technology and examining the impact of "open everything", this article posits the value of innovation intermediaries as critical enablers of success in the emergent field of social innovation.

Social Technology

The Social Innovation Generation (SiG) program, launched in June 2007 to spur social innovation in Canada, represents a partnership between the McConnell Foundation, MaRS Discovery District, the University of Waterloo and the BC-based PLAN Institute for Caring Citizenship. It defines social innovation as an initiative, product or process that profoundly changes beliefs, basic routines, resources and authentic flows of any social system in the direction of greater resilience.

Social technology enables those most impacted by problems to collaborate with those motivated to provide effective and efficient technology solutions. Achieving any social mission requires regular communication, which can be made possible through social technology. An example of social technology in action was seen in June 2008 with a hands-on, web 2.0 intensive training session held at the MaRS Discovery District for those engaged in social change. This Social Tech Training (STT), co-hosted with Communicopia, was an opportunity for 60 representatives from a mix of organizations to explore the use of social technology to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of social initiatives. Ricken Patel, founder and Executive Director of, a global online advocacy group designed to "close the gap between the world we have and the world we want", suggested that we are facing a crisis that presents an opportunity for change. Patel sees the crisis as a democracy deficit and the opportunity as a new approach to elicit democratic engagement. He argues that the use of social technology will allow individuals to make a difference.

Complex social issues like poverty and environmental degradation are by no means new, but the global context in which they arise certainly is. The transfer of knowledge, information and news is increasing rapidly every year. With so many competing social concerns, how can audiences be reached and mobilized through the haze of messages and marketing? What is abundantly clear is that the proverbial balance needs tipping and no single sector has all the answers. Given mounting pressures such as an aging population, an under-resourced voluntary sector, and our current global economic situation, the case for social technology is compelling.

Open source approaches have taught us that success can be found in the creation of space for engaging in collective efforts. Enabling people to get involved on their own terms is a radical idea, one that holds the seeds of social innovation. In social technology, the sum is greater than its parts, and as in most fields, the team is critical to success. The challenge in the offline world is making organizations more flat, so that the sum is not just those decisions made by upper management. In the online world, social technology can offer sites that are rich with online video, photo, sound and graphic capacities to seamlessly present complex stories in a way that works for a variety of constituents.

Innovation Intermediaries

An innovation intermediary is an individual or organization responsible for mobilizing resources to achieve an outcome. Philip Smith, the "Simplifier of Technology" at Community Bandwidth, offered the following observation during STT: "At the core of most successful social technology initiatives (are) innovation intermediaries. These are the folks that are in the trenches every day living and breathing everything that is what we understand to be important social technologies--e-mail campaigns, Web services, mobile applications, online fundraising, social networks, etc.--and sharing their experiences out to innovative organizations. These are the circuit riders, the non-profit technology assistance providers and implementers, the civic data libertarians, and the progressive software development providers and developers--we desperately need some of these concepts explored in the Canadian context. Intermediaries are the shepherds that can alter the course of this familiar story."

It is clear, as postulated in Honest Brokers, that "innovation intermediaries are emerging in response to a set of barriers that inhibit the relationships between different organizations." has attained legitimacy as an innovation intermediary. The technology concept is simple: build a mailing list where subscribers receive alerts "to urgent global issues and opportunities to achieve change." Members are advised on what action to take, which petition to sign, and how much money needs to be raised. Members are polled regularly to determine which issues should be tackled. Supporters guide the parameters of the campaigns which are able to go where most could not due to stakeholder influences. Response is overwhelming and passionate, and the approach has proven extremely successful, with over 3.2 million current subscribers.

In addition to social technology, we need intermediaries who understand and embrace open source thinking to bring about effective social change. Patel describes the innovation intermediary role as servant leadership: working with the people one seeks to mobilize to best reflect their needs and passions as engaged citizens.

People Driving Social Innovation

As in many other emergent movements, a face on a social innovation movement is important. However, social innovators admit that success requires a team of people with a shared vision. Significant change comes through collective action. Who are the people who drive social innovation? According to, they are aged 15-85 and come from all backgrounds. Youths are energetic, seek careers that provide more than just stable income, are willing to try new approaches, and are equipped with the digital tools to make a difference. They are also supported by experienced people who "would like to think the tools we have helped develop will make life easier for the people who want to initiate and grow societal change".

This is a new generation of social citizens: global citizens first, Canadian citizens second. They are the peer-to-peer generation. These citizens demand an open source approach to social innovation and a new economy based on "with" instead of "for". The groundswell is very much present and active, it just looks different. Instead of taking to the streets, a whole new generation is taking it online, and therefore, taking it global.

Open Everything

There is a global movement to "open everything". Lead by some great Canadian and UK thinkers, Open Everything is holding a series of meetings based on the belief that "Open is changing the game. And, while Wikipedia and open source software offer great examples of what is happening, we know that openness, collaboration and participation are spreading well beyond the realm of technology. At the core, it is about values. Open Everything gathers people who are charting this trajectory."

Can we move to open everything? Can you let go of your hard drive filing system and post everything online like Kris Krug, of Raincity Studios, allowing him to access all of his data from anywhere in the world? Maybe not, but it is worth keeping tabs on trailblazers like Kris, or better still, to join their discussion and engage with them to critically assess if openness is in fact enabling social innovation.


Systems transformation is being brought on by demands from donors and youth who understand that there has to be a better way forward. Complexity of the issues we face and mounting economic pressures signify that the time is right for disruptive innovations to flourish. Social innovation is about communities, and action-oriented teams of people who lead. Join us, to take the best of social technology, innovation intermediaries, people, and openness to change our society for the better.

Recommended Resources


Community Intermediaries Research Project

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