Social Innovation

How social innovation can deliver the SDGs: six lessons for the decade of delivery

schwab foundation social innovation in action with woman surrounded by children changing lives and education possibilities

Image: Ami Vitale, Ripple Effect Images

Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Social Innovation

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Comprising a community of organizations that are formed around a social innovation approach, social entrepreneurship successfully demonstrates alternative working models to face the critical challenges to our planet, our societies and our economies. As the urgency to meet our shared challenges and common goals of the SDGs by 2030 intensifies, social innovators have an important catalytic role to play in highlighting and integrating what has worked effectively with local, sustainable solutions into the global economy.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

A force for systems change

The collective impact of the Schwab Foundation community at the beginning of this decade is astounding. The Foundation’s social innovators have improved the lives of more than 622 million people in 190 countries. The Schwab Foundation 2020 Impact Report reveals other key highlights including: distributing more $6.7 billion in loans or through sales of products or services to improve livelihoods; mitigating more than 192 million tonnes of CO2; improving education for more than 226 million children and youth; improving energy access for 100 million people; and driving social inclusion for more than 25 million people with disabilities, homelessness or refugee status.

Due to the nature of their work, social innovators align with the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals – in fact, most social innovators were contributing towards achieving the SDGs before they were even published. There are six key lessons that social innovators can teach us if we want to accelerate our efforts and achieve the SDGs by 2030.

1. The collective impact of social innovators is powerful

The cumulative effect of the work of hundreds of social innovators is of global significance, and the intersectoral potential of their approaches to deal with the complexity of our time serves as a set of proven models from which to build an inclusive and sustainable economy.

2. Social innovators forge successful partnerships to enable scale

Cross-sector partnerships are key for survival and scale: from grassroot citizen movements and municipalities, to technical intermediaries, large corporations and international organizations. Social innovators are experts at establishing successful cross-sector partnerships that enable the growth, diversification and funding of large-scale efforts focused on social and environmental impact that can expand across different markets and contexts.

3. Social innovators use technology as an enabler and equalizer

Technology can be an equalizer, it enables learning, sharing and remote collaboration. It can also provide platforms for tracking data and impact, giving access to those who cannot normally be reached. However, technology can also create or increase divides and inequalities. A range of stakeholders have a role to play in ensuring the true potential of technology is realized and managed.

“Technology, and the tools of the Fourth Industrial Revolution offer solutions to issues including job creation and solving problems in health, education, security and food. It’s critical we get this right…The social entrepreneur model is needed more than ever to meet the big challenges with practical on the ground solutions. If these can be quickly scaled up, we really do have a chance of changing the world in our lifetimes.” – Ernest Darkoh, BroadReach

4. The funding of social innovators needs to evolve

Funding and investment need to evolve to support radical and systemic work. Social innovators and entrepreneurs do not easily fulfil traditional investment criteria for charitable, commercial or public investors. They are innovators, while most investors tend to be risk-averse; whether their metrics of success are financial, environmental or social, social entrepreneurs’ ambitions are expansive, cross-cutting, and systemic, while investors have been known to advise them to focus their efforts more narrowly. Of course, this is not true of all funding models, but many social innovators report misalignments between their funding needs and what mainstream investors are willing to fund.

5. The Sustainable Development Goals are a rallying cry for more action

The SDGs provide a unifying framework for all sectors to align to. With or without the framing of the SDGs, social innovators are acutely aware of the issues at the ground level and demonstrate impact in more granular detail than the SDGs, and also tackle issues not captured by the SDGs. They understand the interconnectedness of the problems and seek to address them through contextually relevant models. Social innovators align quite easily with the SDGs and many existed before the SDGs were published.

6. Social innovators show that systems can be changed

Social innovators recognise the urgency to develop systemic approaches. Hence, the practices of social innovators are not only technical solutions to problems, but

Increasingly demonstrate that systemwide changes in policies or market rules do lead to transformative changes for people and lasting restorative solutions for our planet.

“Systems change starts by debunking conventional wisdoms that perpetuate failing systems in an evidenced-based way.” – Gary White,

What’s the challenge for social innovators in the decade of delivery?

Moving forward, the Schwab Foundation and its community of social innovators is at the forefront of a collective agenda to:

  • Spur more intentional cross-sector collaboration
  • Shift power dynamics to achieve transformative change (driving inclusion through diversity and gender representation, capital flows and decision-making)
  • Support the shift from growing organizational models to systemic action
  • Promote technology as an equalizer and an enabler of change
  • Pursue enabling policies and regulatory environments
  • Improve local and global decision-making around collective progress
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Social InnovationSustainable Development
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