Can Not for Profit Organisations really ever be innovative?

What does Social innovation actually mean?

Is it only a thing for the private sector?

Edna Soomre

Head of Digital Health Programme, SPIDER

None of us can have missed the hype around “INNOVATION”. Many of us would love to sit in open spaces with fellow creative minds and crack the next tech trend that alter society in a remarkable manner. But what if we are public sector entities or work for a NGO, can we still work with social innovation? SPIDER co-founded the Pan-African ICT 4 Social Innovation Conference and Network in 2015 – what is our experience working with African innovators from various sectors?

Definition – what is social innovation?

It’s important that we are very clear about what we mean by Social Innovation, as there isn’t really a universally accepted and used concept for it. For us at SPIDER it encompasses far more than new ideas and brand-new inventions.

Social Innovation within the sphere of digital development is for SPIDER the use of existing, as well as new technology and design to meet social needs, in a way previously not seen. Social innovation benefits more than just individuals, and changes the societal benefits of using digital technologies, doing things more efficiently, effectively and sustainably.


Thinking outside-the-box when it comes to changing behaviour is as important as new code, gadgets and technical functions.

Who is Social Innovation by?

When SPIDER joined forces with iHub Kenya to launch the ICT 4 Social Innovation Conference and Network in 2015, it was on the premises that we must own this phenomenon of Social Innovation. And by ‘we’ I mean our partners: people who are daily using technology in ways that are unanticipated, altering behaviour, opening up opportunities and enabling real change to occur in a range of social settings. Whilst many social entrepreneurs are aware that they are treading new paths, often civil society organisations, researchers and public employees are not recognizing how innovatively they go about reaching their results. And others do not point it out either. We are simply used to industry leading innovation.

Thinking outside-the-box when it comes to changing behaviour is as important as new code, gadgets and technical functions. Let us not forget that a combination of skills and perspectives create truly novel solutions. In this respect, we all have a challenge, to unpack the concept of social innovation and to lift up the examples of such, whatever sector they may stem from. And perhaps most importantly, we should encourage creativity at our places of work.

Social Innovation in practice

During 2017 the members of the ICT4SI Network have both mapped challenges as well as explored synergies and opportunities to use technology for the improvement of services and for the achievement of national plans and priorities. At the Annual Conference 26th October 2017 in Abuja, Nigeria, we will further look at how each member, sector, and expertise is necessary for sustainable development in long term.

Five tips for stimulating Social Innovation

Here are my five main tips for stimulating social innovation, based on being surrounded by the brilliance of our digital health partners and network members.

1) Positive outlook

This isn’t about being naïve – it is about seeing challenges as opportunities to develop new tools or to seek new creative ways to solving something that impedes progress. Research has shown that a positive attitude to work has real benefits both in efficiency and effectiveness but also to the level of creativity.

Constantly seeing the world through “impossible” is probably the biggest hurdle to innovation. I have worked with organisations that relentlessly challenge themselves to rething their approach, this is often organisations of young people, who refuse to wait for a solution, instead they create them. At the very first ICT4 Social Innovation Conference the conversations very much circles around “let us create our opportunities since we don’t have time for others to provide them for us” – That really is the spirit of ICT4SI Network.

2) Develop a common ground

Just like the systems and frameworks for digital health, people need to find communication that is interoperable. That means information and efforts from high level national leadership should, for the sake of social innovation, interact with community level health service provision.

Researchers should be valued for the academic lens they can discover opportunities for improvement. And the expertise of a traditional midwife is of as much value as a digital health software developer in producing solutions.

The common aim should be translated into a common language and respect for diverse set of power, insight and skills. When that falls into a place, there is no stopping social innovation.


3) Humans vs machines

Often times the most innovative ideas are those that others have already thought of, but not made perfect. Sometimes taking something that has been around for some time, and adjust it to use by a specific key group or to respond to a behavioural pattern is just what will create lasting impact. Engagement strategies can be as innovative as development of new technology product.

To unlock why people use certain digital technologies is really the key to creating impact through information and communication technologies.  That is why this is part of the Digital Principles for Development.


4) Dismantle hierarchies

To foster innovation also requires the rearrangement and dismantling of hierarchies. Looking at famous impact leaders, many are young, others belong to a minority group and some have fought against being dismissed as societal outcasts. No longer is the advancement of careers and development of success dependent on a vertical path. Junior staff at your organisations can bring the much-needed input to make perfect the ideas that senior staff members may have battling with. Asking for help, while directing a company should be as natural as delivering a service in a clinic and reaching out for assistance. When ownership of a solution is embedded at all levels of an organisation, that’s when it will have a long life.


5) Dare to Network

Getting stuck in our comfort zones is one of the most rigid hinders of all. Talking to other “converts” of digital health or ICT4Development field, sector colleagues and age mates is the number one enemy to innovation. Instead, seek yourself to gatherings where you can speak to people who are different, know things you may not, and seek the same level of innovation and challenge as you.

Now I will give you that opportunity: register for the ICT4Social Innovation Conference on 26 October in Abuja! It’s a small investment for the benefits it will bring.


I would particularly like to challenge CSOs, Academica and Public sector to join us. Take the chance to be part of Nigeria’s explosive social innovation ecosystem. Meet our event partner AfriLabs and MSH IdeaLabs Nigeria and many many many organisations and change makers that are guaranteed to inspire you.

If you would like to be an official sponsor (no investment is too small nor too big) email and if you have a product or project you think would benefit from being highlighted, get in touch.

SPIDER, and I welcome you to Abuja!

Sponsor ICT4Social Innovation

If you would like to be an official sponsor (no investment is too small nor too big) email and if you have a product or project you think would benefit from being highlighted, get in touch.