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10th Anniversary Essays

Toward an Open-Solution Society

One of 16 special essays on how the field of social innovation has evolved and what challenges remain ahead.

 

We are moving toward a more open-solution society, one in which people of all walks of life are encouraged to apply their creativity and talents to crafting innovative solutions to social problems and increasing their impact. The democratization of social innovation is driven by a range of factors, from cultural shifts to advances in information and communications technology. Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) has been making and will continue to make a significant contribution to this movement.

This is a good thing. Societies around the world are facing significant social problems for which they often do not have (or at least have not implemented) effective and affordable solutions. As they struggle, they also face significant uncertainty and rapid changes (from population shifts to technological advances) that result in new, complex, and shifting problems, and that open the door to new kinds of solutions. To navigate these choppy waters, they need to be more innovative, flexible, and adaptive.

The need for adaptation is not new. Stanford University historian Ian Morris observed, in his sweeping review of the shifting balance of global power, Why the West Rules—For Now, that history can be defined as “a single grand relentless process of adaptations to the world that always generate new problems that call for further adaptations.” Our times make it even more urgent that societies find a path to greater adaptability.

How do societies become more adaptive? For advice on this question, we need look no further than Douglass North, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. He introduced the concept of “adaptive efficiency,” which concerns a society’s dynamic ability to solve problems over time. North explains in his classic Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, “Adaptive efficiency, therefore, provides the incentives to encourage the development of decentralized decision-making processes that will allow societies to maximize the efforts required to explore alternative ways of solving problems.” Decentralized problem-solving is the essence of an open-solution society.

Creating effective solutions is not simply sorting what works from what does not work, and then scaling up what works. It is a matter of understanding what works under which circumstances and for whom.

At the heart of such a society lies social entrepreneurship, which is the epitome of a decentralized exploration of alternative solutions to social problems. Through their innovations, experimentation, and persistent efforts, social entrepreneurs expand the portfolio of options available for dealing with current and future social and environmental issues, thus providing an essential ingredient for enhancing adaptive efficiency.

Yet entrepreneurial exploration is not enough. It can lead to fragmentation, frustration, and confusion, if it is not done within an institutional framework that helps us assess, evaluate, and appropriately scale the most promising of the experimental efforts. Markets guide this process in the case of business entrepreneurship, but the success of decentralized social problem-solving depends on the effectiveness of other supporting institutions (legal, financial, cultural, intellectual, and more) in promoting an adequate level of social entrepreneurship, improving its effectiveness, and capitalizing on what we learn through the explorations.

Creating effective solutions is not a matter of simply sorting what works from what does not work, and then scaling up what works, as some would have it. It is a matter of understanding what works under which circumstances and for whom. The world is more nuanced and complicated than we want to admit. Rarely is the solution to a problem “one-size-fits-all.” We need to realize that what appears to be “best practice” has to be qualified and is usually temporary, best only until something better comes along. And we should always be challenging ourselves to do better.

For a society to use intelligently the portfolio of approaches developed by social entrepreneurs, it needs sophisticated assessment tools that capture strengths and weaknesses, as well as methods for the strategic scaling of solutions that fit the circumstances and the people involved. This process should be embedded in a continuous process of refinement and adaptation. Innovation is not finished as long as improvement is still possible. The open-solution society must seek continual evaluation and improvement. Imagine our tech world today if Apple had stopped innovating with the Apple II, just because it was “best” at the time.

We can learn from biology here. In his provocative book on the brain, Incognito, David Eagleman observes, “Biology never checks off a problem and calls it quits. It reinvents solutions continually. The end product of that approach is a highly overlapping system of solutions—the necessary condition for a team-of-rivals architecture.” That is how an open-solution society becomes an adaptively efficient society.

As a hub for sharing lessons, stimulating action, and encouraging engagement, SSIR is an important contributor to advancing an open-solution society.

 
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