Taking Back the Term 'Social'

03/10/2011 02:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jerri Chou The Feast Social Innovation Conference, Founder

Working in social innovation is tricky, not in the least because the sector, like any new field, lacks definition(s). And while words, semantics and frameworks may seem more like something to bicker over than anything else, they are actually critical for driving thinking and practice forward.

The term "social" gets particularly tossed around like a rag doll. What has been most frustrating is the confusion between "social" when referring to social media and social good. But perhaps there's a chance to use the dichotomy to bring cohesion back to what the real essence of the term "social" is. Maybe it's time we take back the term "social."

To do so demands an exercise in definitions. This word has developed many, but the two most general are:

1.) living or disposed to live in companionship with others or in a community, rather than in isolation: People are social beings.

2.) of or pertaining to the life, welfare, and relations of human beings in a community: social problems.

But the origin of the word alludes to a much stronger tie:

1555-65; < Latin sociālis, equivalent to soci ( us ) partner, comrade + -ālis -al1

In fact, sociology defines the social self as that which is "seeking connection and belonging."

"Social" is what bonds us as human beings. It is the critical tie and underlying commonality that encompasses and enables empathy, cooperation, and collaboration: generally, all the things that better "society" (same root).

In this context, "social change" has maintained a rather flat definition. It's true that the social bond that ties us together is what inspires us to help others, here and around the globe, in worse situations than ours. But the one-sided window into the injustice-avenging, guilt-stricken view of the world is being shattered by a new form of "social change": one that is more holistic and sustainable because it is focused on "us", ALL of us.

Thanks in part to the digital era, we are more connected than ever; as the global "us" grows, so too does our social capacity. But in addition to breaking barriers of citizenship and place, that connectivity is allowing people to engage, participate, communicate, and collaborate in new ways that are fully owned and started by individuals within their own communities (however local or international those might be). Despite all the debate around it, things like Twitter and Facebook ("social" media) allow us to more easily organize, communicate, and develop strong ties with others. New tools like Google Docs and Skype allow us to more easily connect and create. New information technologies and applications that range from data management to the ubiquitous mobile phone are making information more transparent and useful. (And aside from just "digital", this community-based mentality is emerging in new social "technologies" and models for operating such as microfinance, bike sharing, the zero rupee, and more. This democratization of participation and creation means that people become more able to create and define value for themselves - and to facilitate value for others. "For the people, by the people" is now truer than ever.

For "social issues," this means that the paradigm is no longer of outsiders looking into situations and deciding what is "wrong" (or what is "right," for that matter), but offering the means for individuals to address their own needs, and better their own lives, as they see fit. The shift from "dead aid" to sustainable development is evidence to this, as is the move toward less outside-in design centric innovation practice to models of true community-based co-creation of systems, products, and services.

That means that "social innovation" is not necessarily just the provision of water systems to local farmers, but models like Kickstarter and micro-consignment that allow people to create value through social means. Unlocking the creative and innovative potential of people - through anything from the volunteer corps at giant companies like IBM to the facilitation of craft and commerce through platforms like Etsy -- is the new face of "social innovation".

Many recent trends point to this more participatory and creative definition of "social": hacker culture, DIY platforms, open innovation, etc. and we'll talk about that in more detail elsewhere. The thing to remember is not to let the industrial era thinking creep in. The best social innovation is exactly that which strengthens us: that which enables creation in a way that benefits the collective while strengthening it at the same time. A good example might be Neighborgoods, a service barter and exchange startup for home goods. Whereas they might have just systematized the process, the incorporation of actually meeting your neighbors as part of the barter and exchange process makes 'us' stronger.

I truly believe that every human being, every single one is us, is inherently trying to better their lives. There are a lot of variables within the processes that people see as "bettering," thanks to a long history of commercial persuasion and cultural influence on ideals. But ultimately, people are full of potential: to create, to express, to love -- and that variable definition of "better," as a means to achieving a "better life," must be left to individuals. What social innovation can do is open the channels to information, critical thinking, and choice. Ultimately, it can unlock the potential in people by enabling the creation of real value by every one of us.

That is the new definition of "social."