Understanding Social Innovation in Asia

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Social innovation is an emerging concept in civil society and organizational management studies. Bakhrom Radjabov, 2022 AsiaGlobal Fellow and author of Social Innovations in Post-Soviet Countries, outlines findings from his investigation into social innovation projects across Asia, identifying trends and developments that provide insights into various national contexts. He draws lessons for how to create the supportive environment needed for effective social innovation.

Understanding Social Innovation in Asia

Modular roofing for slums and villages in India: Social innovation is a new concept that has neither a clearcut definition nor accepted indicators to measure its impact (Credit: ReMaterials)

What is social innovation? Let me repeat the definition I provided in my previous AsiaGlobal Online article published in October 2022: “Social innovation is a multidimensional concept that varies across public, civic and private sectors and is used to fill the gaps in the national welfare systems of developed countries, strengthen social cohesion, and/or satisfy basic needs in developing or poor countries.” In that essay, I offered criteria to set the standards for social innovation.

In my current research, I have expanded my exploration of social innovation from post-Soviet countries to Asia, conducting interviews with representatives of 10 organizations in Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. My aim: to understand social innovation in the region and draw lessons for how to shape the supportive environment needed for social innovation projects (SIPs) to be effective.

Though SIPs in Asian countries share many common features, they vary from country to country in different aspects. A key general observation is that social innovation is a new concept in the region usually missing a clearcut definition and indicators to measure its impact. SIPs are usually regarded as the catalysts of social development to serve the public good. While there are SIPs in various sectors such as healthcare, gender, housing, architecture, and youth participation, among others, many of them serve the role of a connector between the business and social sectors. Also, they welcome government support but typically do not ultimately need it for financial sustainability.

A new pathway for solving old problems

While researching SIPs in Asia, it became evident that the concept of social innovation has been widely applied in the region only recently. The term itself has come into use in different countries over the past 20 years. Martina Mok, a corporate social innovation consultant in Hong Kong, recalled that when she began working in the sector four years ago, she focused on raising awareness about the idea. “Now,” she reckons, “the awareness and the interest are higher in the society, but the understanding is still low. There are early adapters and also those who are interested but do not know how to design and run SIPs. This is where intermediaries can help to increase connections and understanding.”

In Asia, the concept is not clearly defined. William Sin from The Good Lab, a social innovation community building group in Hong Kong, pointed out that “social innovation is a new way of using existing resources.” Jessica Tam from the Hong Kong-based Social Enterprise Business Centre (SEBC) and May Sripatanaskul, the founder of LUKKID, a youth leadership initiative in Thailand, both described social innovation as “a new method to solve social problem”, while Tu-Anh Hoang at the Center for Creative Initiatives in Health and Population (CCHIP) in Vietnam acknowledged that she encountered the concept only recently.

Despite the relative novelty of the social innovation in the region, SIPs have been designed and implemented rapidly due to the growing need to address existing social challenges. Research on social innovation is only just catching up with the practice.

Monk health and nutrition program in Thailand: The reality is that social innovation projects do not always focus on the specific needs of individuals (Credit: LUKKID on Facebook)

Monk health and nutrition program in Thailand: The reality is that social innovation projects do not always focus on the specific needs of individuals (Credit: LUKKID on Facebook)

Needs-based but not always human-centered

Many SIPs in Asia were designed to tackle existing and emerging social challenges. Even though representatives of organizations I interviewed claimed that SIPs they supported apply human-centric strategies, the reality is that they do not always cover the specific needs of individuals. It is neither easy technically nor affordable financially to gain the necessary knowledge about the issues affecting individuals and communities. Government-led SIPs, in particular, are designed based on data relating to pressing social issues that are available from official sources. But this information is not always credible enough for SIPs to design policies, mechanisms or strategies that are targeted to address particular human needs or problems.

This is where a think tank group such as Our Hong Kong Foundation (OHKF) can play a key role, providing accurate and meaningful data and research on existing social challenges. For its part, OHKF also serves as a connector of the different stakeholders willing to work together to solve the real pressing problems in the community. This is an important aspect of SIPs – the catalytic convening power to encourage cooperation and networking.

Promoting networking and collaboration among stakeholders

The landscape in which SIPs operate in Asia is very diverse. Different from politically angled or motivated SIPs in some countries of Europe, in Asia SIPs, notably those in commercial hubs such as Hong Kong, have been nurtured by the corporate sector. One of the reasons for that might be the need for businesses to conform with corporate social responsibility standards or practices such as ESG (environmental, social, governance) and impact investing. Business entities in Hong Kong willing to address socio-economic problems such as youth unemployment are still profit-driven and usually do not rely on government funding for their activities. Consider theDesk, a co-working and enterprise services platform in Hong Kong that takes a community-building approach. According to Suzanna Lee, the group is firmly in the private sector but also has a social mission. This combination of function and purpose seems to be a frequent feature of SIPs in business centers.

Consultant Mok argues that “the social sector will not lead social innovation in Hong Kong”, noting that the special administrative region offers SIPs funding through its Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development (SIE) Fund. Tam of SEBC acknowledges that her organization receives a third of its funding from government. Clearly, in this model, the social responsibility priorities of the government and the business sector align when it comes to addressing the pressing socio-economic and socio-political issues in a city such as Hong Kong – the aging population, the need to improve healthcare and social systems, combating poverty, and dealing with youth concerns. Tam notes that in Hong Kong over a million people (out of a total population of 7 million) could be considered as living below the city’s poverty line and that there is insufficient availability of affordable and good-quality housing. This is undermining the living standards of both elderly and youth and limiting the opportunities for young people, in particular. In this context, the government needs to intervene by supporting SIPs.

But “the government understands that it cannot do everything,” Ling Kar-kan, director of the Jockey Club Design Institute for Social Innovation (JCDISI), avers. The private sector and NGOs, therefore, also engage with SIPs. Social innovation “is a cross-sectoral concept aimed at social service or social policy,” says Ling. Liang Lehui, head of purpose capital at Social Ventures Hong Kong (SVHK), explains that her organization is a platform that brings together the government, NGOs and corporate sector.

An issue that does arise when it comes to government interaction with or support of SIPs is politics. Han Sun-kyung of C. (Cdot), a Seoul-based platform for connecting social innovators, reckons that in capitalist Asian economies social innovation is considered to be something of a leftist concept. This may be contributing to efforts by states to rein in civil society. “The civic sector is losing its independence,” Han observes. This means that, even if SIPs are driving an agenda for meaningful social change across different sectors and in collaboration with various stakeholders, they are not likely to be able to propel a comprehensive systemic transformation.

On the ground: Hong Kong Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund staff visit a district health center (Credit: SIE)

On the ground: Hong Kong Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund staff visit a district health center (Credit: SIE)

The limitations of social innovation

Most SIPs in Asia are launched as local initiatives aimed at specific domains (e.g., youth and elderly issues, social services, healthcare, support for local communities). They rarely act as drivers of systemic shifts. “SIPs address community problems, not policy change,” SEBC’s Tam remarks. The primary reason for this is that SIPs are usually designed to address immediate issues in communities and therefore do not typically affect policy decisions.

By the social innovation textbook, SIPs should as a rule be designed in the intersection of different sectors where private business, government and NGOs serve their roles and can guarantee sustainability of social innovation in the long run. But the reality is always different. In Asia, corporate businesses and governments lead in the shaping and support of SIPs. Financial sustainability is the key. NGOs typically seek government funding for SIPs. In Thailand, May Sripatanaskul of LUKKID explains “granting access and continuity of SIPs depends on government.” Business is usually very good at turning SIPs into working initiatives but they lack the political leverage needed for policy change to drive systemic transformation.

In Hong Kong, “the willingness of the government to participate in SIPs is important,” William Sin of The Good Lab stresses. Indeed, government collaboration with SIPs is crucial even if SIPs ultimately have little if any influence on policymaking. Groups such as OHKF or the Gerontechnology Platform do research and advocacy, develop policy recommendations and analyze the impact of policy changes at the request of government.

Measuring the social impact of SIPs is challenge due to the lack of methodology and an evaluation framework that would apply across sectors. Social impact is a case-by-case issue, Martina Mok argues. Going forward, however, accepted mechanisms for impact measurement are required if only to understand the effectiveness of SIPs and how they can be improved and possibly scaled up or perhaps brought to other countries. Some SIPs are simply not made to be expanded or transferred to other national contexts.

Supporting social innovation

Social innovation can have the power to bring change in any society when they are introduced in conducive settings. Asian countries are no exception. To enable desired social change in Asia through social innovation, I recommend the following:

  • SIPs should be designed with equal combination of public, private and civic sectors. The prerequisite for social innovation is collaboration among different actors because social innovation emerges at the intersection of different sectors (e.g., public, private and civic). The leading role of business and government in designing and implementing SIPs in Asia should be strengthened by the substantial involvement of civic sector (NGOs, civic groups and communities, etc.)
  • People-centered approaches in designing SIPs should be applied. Otherwise, SIPs not supported by the end-users (people) for whom they are supposed to be serving might lose their sustainability over time.
  • Closer collaboration with government should be established to stimulate the designing of SIPs able to affect policy solutions of the pressing socio-economic issues and enable systemic change.
  • SIPs should aim to adopt sustainable business models so that they would be able to operate when government support and funding are no longer available. SIPs, however, should avoid the trap of solely pursuing profit and financial sustainability rather than focusing on the social good that they could do not just to tick a corporate responsibility box.
Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Bakhrom Radjabov

Bakhrom Radjabov

2022 AsiaGlobal Fellow, Asia Global Institute, The University of Hong Kong; Friedrich Ebert Foundation; and Webster University

Bakhrom Radjabov, who was a 2022 AsiaGlobal Fellow of the Asia Global Institute at The University of Hong Kong, is head of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Uzbekistan and is also an adjunct professor at Webster University in Tashkent, where he teaches international relations and education and innovation. He is an expert on social innovation, political economy and international development, focusing on the research and application of social innovations in the Eurasian region. His book Social Innovations in Post-Soviet Countries was published by Routledge in June 2022. He worked as a senior administrative assistant for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election observation missions to Uzbekistan. He also worked at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Uzbekistan, where he led public outreach programs for the promotion of social innovation. He served as the national project coordinator for a German International Development Corporation (GIZ) regional project. He also worked as the project manager of the UNDP/Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations Joint Project aimed at adapting population skills to the post-pandemic economy in Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan. He holds a master’s degree in international studies from the University of Tsukuba in Japan, an MA in global political economy from the University of Kassel in Germany, and a doctorate in social sciences from the University of Tsukuba. Dr Radjabov studied social entrepreneurship and humanitarian innovations at the Brown International Advanced Research Institutes at Brown University and in public policy at the Central Asia Program of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, both in the US. He has received training in innovative entrepreneurship and business Management at MASHAV, Israel’s international development cooperation program, and in think tank leadership through an online workshop organized by the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the Eurasia Foundation in Washington, DC. He is also the recipient of prestigious scholarships from the German and Japanese governments and a participant in various international programs run by the US State Department, the American Foreign Policy Council, and the Rumsfeld Foundation.

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