Future of Engagement #3: Collaborative Social Innovation

Organizations and people co-design innovative and sustainable solutions to create shared value.

What is Collaborative Social Innovation?

Source: thinkpublic on Flickr

Collaborative social innovation initiatives involve businesses, governments, non-profits and change makers coming together to co-create innovative and sustainable solutions around a shared purpose. Such initiatives typically focus on the areas that have the highest potential to create shared value: environment, energy and sustainability; health, wellness and nutrition; education, learning and capability building; and governance, public services and public spaces. Change makers are typically rewarded with prize money, recognition, funding or support; organizations find solutions to important challenges; and society at large benefits from the innovative solutions.

The rise of collaborative social innovation can be attributed to three broad trends. First, businesses, governments and non-profits are realizing the importance of multi-stakeholder social innovation solutions that create shared value, especially in the context of engaging Gen Ys. Second, organizations like the XPrize Foundation, which have a long history of creating “large-scale, high-profile, incentivized prize competitions” to solve problems that are important for society, are learning how to reach new groups of innovators from across the world, thanks to the internet. Third, networks like TEDPopTechEchoing GreenAshoka and StartingBloc are connecting young change makers and showcasing their work, through conferences, challenges and fellowships, inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.

As a result, we are seeing a number of platforms focusing on different aspects of collaborative social innovation.

OpenIDEO (video) by design and innovation consultancy IDEO has partnered with businesses, governments, and non-profits to create a series of collaborative social innovation challenges.


ChallengePostMindMixer (video), Ashoka Change makers (video) and One Billion Minds are other third-party collaborative social innovation platforms which enable organizations to create challenges for the public. ChallengePost focuses on open government challenges and MindMixer encourages civic engagement, while Ashoka Change makers and One Billion Minds feature a wide range of social innovation challenges. Other platforms, like MIT Center for Collective Intelligence’s Climate CoLab project, are focused on a single topic, like climate change.

Open government is another important area for collaborative social innovation. In the US, Challenge.gov, which is built on ChallengePost, has created a series of open government challenges for federal, state and local agencies, while Data.gov encourages developers to build applications using its public data sets and showcases the best applications. In parallel, organizations like Sunlight Foundation and Code for America are helping create the ecosystem to enable collaborative social innovation. In the UK, SparkCentral is a government collaborative social innovation platform that aims to “build partnerships across the public, private and voluntary sectors to deliver more for less.” In Finland, OpenMinistry is a legislation crowdsourcing platform that enables Finnish citizens to propose new laws to the parliament.

Some of these collaborative social innovation platforms have had significant impact. For instance, Ashoka Change makers has channeled $600 million in funding to more than 10,000 social innovators, through more than 50 challenges, with the help of more than 500,000 community members.

Ashoka Changemakers

The success of collaborative social innovation initiatives shows that organizations and people are capable of co-creating innovative solutions to complex problems, and has created a new model for change makers to showcase their innovations, for governments and foundations to find solutions to societal issues and for businesses to realize sustainable growth. Like MIT’s Thomas W. Malone says:

“We want to create more intelligent organizations, more intelligent businesses, more intelligent governments, more intelligent societies. As all the people and computers on our planet get more and more closely connected, it’s becoming increasingly useful to think of all the people and computers on the planet as a kind of global brain.”

How does Collaborative Social Innovation work?

Source: grafixer on Flickr

Collaborative social innovation platforms are typically a hybrid of three models: innovation challenges, innovation ecosystems, and open data platforms.

Most online collaborative social innovation initiatives follow a contest model in which an organization posts a challenge on a platform and invites individuals, groups of individuals or other organizations to submit innovations. These innovations can be at any stage of completion, ranging from ideas or sketches to full-blown business proposals to products, services or technologies that already exist at a smaller scale.

Some platforms include a structured design thinking approach with inspiration, concepting, evaluation and collaboration phases (OpenIDEO), while others break up the challenge into what, where and who elements (Climate CoLab). Some platforms match community members with challenges based on interest (ChallengePost) while other motivate community members by using game mechanics like a design quotient score (OpenIDEO).

Innovations are judged either quantitatively according to a set of scoring criteria or qualitatively by a panel of judges typically made up of experts, specialists and members of the funding committee. In some cases, community members must vote on ideas to increase their chances of appearing before the judges. Winning innovators are rewarded with either cash prizes (ChallengePostAshoka Change makers) or with recognition and satisfaction that they have helped contribute to social good (OpenIDEOOpenMinistry).

Some of these innovation challenge platforms are designed primarily as destination communities (OpenIDEOOne Billion Minds), while others offer white label options to enable organizations to create their own standalone challenge platforms (ChallengePostMindMixer).

For some platforms, like Ashoka Change makers, the innovation challenges are a small part of the overall innovation ecosystem, which includes community, capability building and funding.

For other platforms, like Data.gov, the innovation challenges serve the purpose of connecting government agencies who can share public data with change makers and developers who can build applications on top of this data to improve how these agencies deliver public services.

In essence, all collaborative social innovation platforms are designed around four dynamics: connect, catalyze, crystallize, and celebrate. First, platforms need to connect stakeholders so that they have a context to engage with the organization and with each other. Then, platforms need to catalyze interactions so that new ideas and projects can emerge organically. Next, platforms need to synthesize these ideas into solutions that benefit from and build upon the best ideas. Finally, platforms need to celebrate the most powerful or popular ideas, actions and stories by highlighting them.

Collaborative Social Innovation for Brands

Just like third-party collaborative social innovation platforms, branded collaborative social innovation platforms are typically a hybrid of three models: innovation challenges, innovation ecosystems, and open data platforms.

The most popular model for brands is innovation challenges, or contests to crowdsource social innovation solutions. Several brands have launched social innovation challenges, both as part of their citizenship strategy, to fund, inspire and connect social innovators (Mahindra Spark the RiseDell Social Innovation Challenge) and also as part of their business strategy, to co-create innovative and sustainable solutions that create shared value (GE Ecomagination ChallengeGE Healthymagination Challenge (video)).

Social innovation challenges that are part of a company’s business strategy usually benefit the change-maker or innovator, the business itself and society at large. In such programs, the brand is usually looking to invest in or acquire the innovation, or promote it by supporting it with its business scale. For instance, since the launch of the GE Ecomagination Challenge (video) to find innovations in energy and sustainability, GE has committed $134 million to 22 investments and commercial partnerships, granted $1.1 million in seed funding to early stage companies and entrepreneurs, and acquired one of the businesses that entered the challenge.

GE Ecomagination Challenge 

Other social innovation challenges don’t have a direct impact on the company’s business, but do strengthen the company’s reputation by strengthening its association with social innovation. In many such initiatives, companies partner with educational institutions or non-profit organizations and target students and young innovators. Dell Social Innovation Challenge (video), HP Social Innovation RelayCiti Innovation ChallengeSony Open Planet Ideas (video#!), Toyota Ideas for Good (video), Samsung Solve for Tomorrow (video), Intel Innovators (video),Sygenta Thought for Food Challenge (videoMcKinsey Social Innovation Video Contest and Dell Go Green Challenge (on MSLGROUP’s People’s Lab crowdsourcing platform) are good examples.

Some companies commit to long-term social innovation challenge platforms, with the intention of creating an ecosystem to connect change makers and build capabilities. For instance, both Mahindra Spark the Rise (video) and Pepsi Refresh Project (video) ran for two years and created significant impact. We have covered both these initiatives in our Future of Engagement report on Crowdfunding as examples of crowdfunding programs focused on creators.

Anand Mahindra, Chairman and Managing Director of Mahindra Grouptalked about the role of such initiatives:

“The way companies build brands has evolved. In version 2.0, we saw companies come in with a larger purpose and meaning, beyond the business. Now, we are trying to build a 21st century corporation, by energizing people and giving them a core purpose to be part of.”

Some of these social innovation ecosystems take the shape of public-private partnerships that bring together stakeholders from business, government, academia and civil society to institutionalize social innovation. For instance, Walmart has created 14 Sustainable Value Networks since 2005 to bring together diverse stakeholders to develop solutions to fulfill Walmart’s commitment towards renewable energy, zero waste and sustainable products. IBM launched the Smarter Cities Challenge (video) to collaborate with local governments and co-fund technology-based solutions to city-specific urban challenges. HP launched the Catalyst Initiative to collaborate with educators in finding innovative solutions to enhance student literacy in STEM subjects. In other collaborative social innovation initiatives, companies create open networks to share intellectual property and know-how, and encourage stakeholders to build upon it. As an example, to realize its vision of sustainable “considered design”, Nike created the GreenXchange (video) in 2009 as an open platform for companies and people to share green intellectual property, processes and ideas. Michael Dell, CEO and Chairman of Dell, sums up the opportunity this positive multi-stakeholder approach opens up for all of us:

“The new engine of innovation driven by collaboration, openness, stewardship and the power of the social web gives all of us an opportunity to drive even more rapid, meaningful change across global institutions.”

Collaborative Social Innovation Case Studies

Throughout the year, we have tracked the conversations around a number of behavior change platforms and branded behavior change programs in our weekly insights reports and quarterly magazines; here are a few highlights. Web platform: Open Ministry

In March 2012, the Finland Citizens’ Initiative Act went into effect, giving citizens the right to propose legislation to the Finnish Parliament, provided 50,000 citizens of voting age support the idea within six months. To facilitate this, a group of non-profit entrepreneurs launched web platform Open Ministry through which citizens can propose and vote on new legislature online. Several banks and telecom providers have supported this platform by providing free access to their verification APIs. Journalist Susan Fourtané welcomed the move:

“Today, companies are crowdsourcing everything from designs of cars to marketing slogans. Why shouldn’t governments follow suit?”

Indeed, people too are interested in collaborating over legislature. Joonas Pekkanen, founder of Open Ministry, wrote:

“Citizens have begun to call for a more open, transparent and participatory western democracy in place of the old rigid system.”

David Meyer, a writer at GigaOm.com, attributed the success of the initiative to Finland’s culture of openness and history of collaboration between citizens and the government, and noted the global significance of the Open Ministry project:

“Nordic countries tend to have relatively close societies where people are enthusiastic about pitching into civic life… Tech-driven democracy fans in other countries may not find the environment as conducive to crowdsourced legislation right now, but on the other hand they just got themselves a model to study.”

In October 2012, the first citizen-proposed law, a ban on fur farming, entered Parliament with the support of 55,000 citizens. Branded program: Intel Innovators Read the full case study on our blog or on Slideshare

Source: techcrunch.com

In early 2012, Intel gave $300,000 to youth innovators who presented ideas on how they would change the world through technology, as part of the Intel Innovators contest. The contest helped youth innovators gain attention not only from the industry, but also from their close and extended networks. Pascal Wagner, a participant in the contest, reflected on how the experience led him to reach out to his extended network for support and become more vocal about his project:

“While walking around my college campus, I had over 20 different people stop me asking me about Wordio and the competition – most of them had not known that I was working on this project for the last four months.”

A unique aspect of Intel Innovators is the use of gamification to involve people who weren’t participating directly in the contest. Rooshabh Doshi, member of the MSLGROUP Insights Network, noted:

“Making fans who invest the most amount of social capital on participants, ‘Top Fans’ and allowing them to be a part of ‘The Battleground’ to award an idea $50,000, gives them an immense feeling of belonging at the end of the day… It’s a win-win for fans as well as participants at the end of the day.”

Intel Innovators Intel Innovators was a part of Intel “Innovators of Tomorrow” branding campaign and demonstrated the commitment of the company to fostering innovation among young entrepreneurs. Noah Kerner, CEO of Noise, the agency behind the campaign, said:

“[Start ups] can raise money from funds like GE’s 200MM Ecoimagination Challenge or programs like Intel Innovators, which we created in part to give young entrepreneurs access to funding that they might not otherwise have. In the future, there will be an increasing number of opportunities like this so young entrepreneurs can get more creative about how they raise money and smarter about how much equity they give up.”

Branded program: Dell Social Innovation Challenge Read the full case study on our blog or on Slideshare

Source:  dellchallenge.org

Since 2007, the Dell Social Innovation Challenge has inspired 15,000 students from 105 countries to share 4,500 proposals to tackle the world’s problems and has empowered them with access to peers, mentors and faculty members and $450,000 in funding. Dell has also committed to investing a further $5 million to engage more students every year. The Dell Social Innovation Challenge has acted as an incubator for several promising start ups, and has helped entrepreneurs boost their skills, networks and marketability. Katherine Bascom, who was part of the 2010 winning team Shining Hope for Communitiessaid:

“Since we’ve won [the challenge], we’ve raised $1.2 million from funders like Echo in Green, Newman’s Own Foundation and several other small family foundations. We’ve been featured in New York Times, Vogue Magazine and Fast Company and other media outlets.”

Dell Social Innovation Challenge – Social Entrepreneurship on Vimeo.

Suzi Sosa, a Dell employee and contributor to Forbes BrandVoice highlighted the importance and rise of ‘systems innovations’, a trend emerging in the social entrepreneurship industry as well as in the Dell Social Innovation Challenge:

“Though not always as simple or sexy as product innovations, systems innovations are critical for our planet. The world’s most urgent problems remain unsolved because they are tied to broken systems that no single product can remedy.” “The winners of this year’s Dell Social Innovation Challenge created two systems innovations that not only have the potential to impact the lives of millions, but also reflect an important and exciting trend for social entrepreneurship worldwide.”

The Dell Social Innovation Challenge community has 230,000 members. Nearly 500 employees have participated in challenge as mentors or judges. Branded program: Mahindra Spark the Rise Read the full case study on our blog or on Slideshare

Source: sparktherise.com

In 2012 and 2013, India’s Mahindra Group is giving grants of $1 million to 96 ideas and projects that can drive positive change in India under its Spark the Rise program. Mahindra also connects change makers with each other and mentors, to help create an ecosystem for social innovation in India. The program is a demonstration of Mahindra Group’s commitment to its corporate philosophy ‘Rise.’ Ad veteran Ramesh Narayan commented:

“Mahindra is making a statement it is committed to helping India, and backing it with action. [Spark the Rise] is an eloquent statement of its positioning, unlike a mere advertising campaign that says the company is committed to some cause or the other.”

Mahindra Spark the Rise

Former ad-man Lakshmipathy Bhat noted the need for companies to embrace purpose-driven campaigns like Spark the Rise:

“Consumers are a lot more wary of advertising claims. They also have access to information on the internet which allow them to form a considered opinion about a brand and not just depend on what the advertising says. So in a way, companies can be ‘caught out’ if they were to merely pay lip service to a claim… In this context, the Mahindra Group initiative, Rise is commendable.”

The Future of Collaborative Social Innovation

In the near future, we expect collaborative social innovation to become the norm both for corporations creating innovations that create shared value and governments and change makers designing solutions for social good.

Even as white label open innovation platforms like BrightIdea and People’s Lab mature, we will see more specialized platforms like ChallengePost and MindMixer, which are focused on social innovation and civic engagement.

Mature organizations will need to go beyond platforms and commit to long-term public-private partnerships that create strong multi-stakeholder ecosystems to scale both the engagement in such initiatives and the impact of the innovations that result from them (Dell Social Innovation ChallengeIBM Smarter Cities Solutions).

Specifically, we expect educational institutions to become more proactive in both partnering with other organizations to co-create collaborative social innovation initiatives targeted at students, and find innovative ways to bring such initiatives into the classroom (OpenIDEO University ToolkitSamsung Solve for Tomorrow).

Even as more corporations create branding-driven collaborative social innovation challenges, we expect more Fortune 500 firms to follow GE’s example and create challenges which have a direct business impact, by investing in the winning innovations, or using their business clout to scale them.

As open government data and application programming interfaces (APIs) become that norm, we expect many more governments to open up civic data and invite developers to build applications on top of them. We also expect some non-profits and corporations to experiment with this model and share data or intellectual property in an open network so that third party developers can build social innovation applications on them.

In a TED Talk, former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer Beth Noveck said:

“If we want to see the hopeful, exciting kinds of innovations in clean energy and education and development, if we want to see those adopted and scaled, we must all participate. Open up institutions and let the nutrients flow throughout our culture to create open institutions, a stronger democracy, a better tomorrow.”

Finally, as organizations become better at designing and measuring collaborative social innovation initiatives, we will see them investing heavily to replicate pilot innovations across markets and scale their impact (Walmart Sustainable Value Networks).


This is the third report from our upcoming People’s Insights Annual Report titled “Now & Next: Future of Engagement,” to be published in January 2013 as an interactive iPad app. The report will highlight the ten most important frontiers that will define the future of engagement for marketers, entrepreneurs and change makers: Crowdfunding, Transmedia Storytelling, Social Curation, Behavior Change Games, Grassroots Change Movements, Collaborative Social Innovation, Crowdsourced Product Innovation, Collective Intelligence, Social Recommendation and Hybrid Reality Experiences.

Coming soon: People's Insights Annual Report

In each of these reports, we start by describing why they are important, how they work, and how brands might benefit from them; we then examine web platforms and brand programs that point to the future (that is already here); then finish by identifying some of the most important features of that future, with our recommendations on how to benefit from them.

Do subscribe to the People’s Lab email newsletter to receive each report and also an invite to download a free copy of the interactive iPad app.