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.