What is transformative social innovation and system change?

What is transformative social innovation and system change?

We all get ill at some point of our lives, and the important question is not whether we do, but how we go through this illness. In the words of a teacher, it is the fundamental difference between ‘I have a disease’ and ‘the disease has me’. The difference is one of internal perspective. No true healing is possible without an inner switch.

Social innovation is in its essence about a new way of seeing and navigating through the difficult or turbulent waters of today. It presents a solution and response to a felt social need or problem, in a way that empowers the participants, remodels relations of power, and improves their individual and collective capacities to act.

Much is written about social innovation, but perhaps most useful here is the distinction of the Third Horizon Framework of the International Futures Forum, between sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation leading to transformation.

As a general term, innovation describes the process of developing a new product or service, in a new market or social area as a response to a model that is no longer sustainable in today’s changing world. Innovation belongs to the entrepreneurial second horizon thinking.

  • Sustaining innovations represent useful improvements in efficiency and operating environments, such as for instance Uber as innovation and alternative to the Taxi system. When co-opted by old models of funding and finance, they could rather be absorbed and extend the life of the expiring model (first horizon), failing to affirm justice or substantially remodel relations of power.
  • Disruptive innovation on the other hand seeks to get to the ‘bottom’ or ’root causes’ of issues. Such innovation is in line with deeper trends in society. It fundamentally helps shift relations of power and renegotiate beliefs, rights and values in life-affirming ways, and can eventually lead to a new dominant system of a third horizon – hence system change.

Classical transformative social innovation examples include activism, volunteering, microcredit, and distance learning. Even so, the excesses of every age call for new innovations, and past innovations’ to-date disruptive capacity could in time be co-opted and put in service to extend the life of essentially defunct socio-economic patterns.

Through the integral lens, transformative innovation always involves a vertical rather than horizontal evolution. To illustrate this distinction, moving from diesel to electric car is a type of horizontal improvement and an example of sustaining innovation, while moving from horse and buggy to automobile represents transformative innovation.

Integral approaches in healthcare are vertical in nature – they are a synthesis of the thesis and antithesis represented by holistic and reductionistic approaches to health and wellness. It takes the truths inherent in both holistic wisdom and rational-based science and brings them into a coherent whole person-centered approach to care.

Integrative care represents an advance, while falling in the category of horizontal evolution. Still, in life it is often true we need to expand horizontally before we can raise vertically.

In the field of oncology, the move from radical mastectomy to lumpectomy was an important, albeit sustaining innovation practice. The move from chemotherapy to immunotherapy, it could be argued, is transformative in nature, and could one day lead to an integral shift.

As the frontiers of science turn from gene sequencing to the intersection between the cancer cell mutation and the identity of the cell itself – that is, to looking at the context –new generation of cancer therapies may be born. Research into the metabolic pathways of cancer cells may be one promising direction for the future.

The real and practical question today however, for anyone at any point of the cancer journey, is how do we make the most of what is available to us today– as tools, understanding and knowledge? How do we synthesize textbook knowledge with the amazing wisdom of our own bodies? And how do we apply this synthesis and activate our own individual and collective capacity for healing?

In the field of health more generally today, most innovation remains at the level of digital and deep-tech or drug-development solutions. Social innovation in its collaborative, transformative capacity, has been slower to be recognized and supported.

This stems from our current policy frameworks and funding models, which apply first horizon, ‘status quo’ logic of venture capital, competitiveness, and high profitability.

But is it possible to reverse them?

Human development is a process of transcendence and inclusion of earlier horizons.
Transformative social innovation is a process and tool that can open new pathways of development.
In its essence, human development is a path of freedom, personal and collective.
A path we make by walking.