Social innovation conundrums. Walking between the lines.


It never used to be this way. Failure was bad and comfort was good. We saw it at home. We learnt it in school. We also learnt to compete. We made our beds and lay in them comfortably, planning traditional competitive plans that simply had to succeed. They had to. Otherwise why bother? What would be the point?

But that was then. Now the world is a different place. Now there are fewer and fewer comfortable spaces for thinking, for planning, for children to curl up and sleep. The schools that used to teach these children to compete and succeed are themselves cracking and failing under the strain of teaching so many with so little to go around.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” said Einstein. He was a clever guy, that Einstein. He also said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Clearly, he didn’t always succeed. And yet, somehow, we still try.

And we try and try and try. The attempts are everywhere, the innovations rise rapidly like bubbles to the surface of a lake. Bubbles of new technology, funding, delivery and support. Private bubbles, public bubbles, social bubbles that jostle for space and burst one another in their attempts to scale up and get to the top. So the trying isn’t helping much. The spending isn’t helping much either.

South Africa spends R235 billion of a R1.06 trillion budget on education. Another R3.2 million of CSI money is spent on it too. But still, the country’s education system is ranked 140th out of 144. Maybe the problem isn’t how much we’re trying, spending and thinking. Maybe the problem is how.

Failure is good: In fact, it’s not failure. Failure is a successful step taken towards ultimate, overall success. It’s a sign that you’ve tried something new and learnt that it sucks. Recognise it, accept it, even celebrate it for what it is. So says David Harrison of the DG Murray Trust. But he also knows it’s “hard to fail, if you’re a funded project”. The need to succeed for your funders means tried-and-tested often trumps an experimental approach. Best practice often pips risky business to the post. That’s why we’re still trying to fix problems with the problematic thinking that created them. And that’s why we’re failing anyway.

Discomfort is good: Collaboration is uncomfortable. Competition is not. Competition comes naturally. Collaboration does not. Our entire system of capitalism and western democracy is powered by competition and rugged individualism. So is our evolutionary biology. That’s part of the problem. The fittest compete and win. The less fit collaborate and commiserate when they don’t. Or so we think. That’s why it’s so much easier not to collaborate. Collaborating calls for sacrificing and working in a discomfort zone. “This can be frustrating and uncomfortable,” says Joy Olivier of Ikamva Youth. “But that is where innovation happens.”

Competition is bad: Every sector thinks theirs is the most impactful. Every innovator thinks their social solution is the best. They may even think that other solutions are worthless, or less worthy of the funding they’re all competing for in the field. Meanwhile, that funding is running dry and the crisis is spreading in darker, bigger circles every day. When there is less available, surely more competitors grabbing for it does not make sense. Surely no sector is most impactful. No single solution is best. The best solution is only a combination that works. Even if it takes more collaboration, discomfort and failure to get there in the end. Which it probably will. But that’s the point. So public, private, social and citizen sectors need to start working together, in the discomfort zone. Collaborating, risking, failing and succeeding, together. In the discomfort zone. This is where the innovation happens.


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