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The process of social innovation


The six stages of social innovation

We have identified six stages that take ideas from inception to impact. These stages are not always sequential (some innovations jump straight into practice or even scale), and there are feedback loops between them. They can also be thought of as overlapping spaces, with distinct cultures and skills. They provide a useful framework for thinking about the different kinds of support that innovators and innovations need in order to grow.

Proposals and ideas

This is the stage of idea generation. This can involve formal methods – such as design or creativity methods to widen the menu of options available. Many of the methods help to draw in insights and experiences from a wide range of sources.


This is when the idea becomes everyday practice. It involves sharpening ideas (and often streamlining them), identifying income streams to ensure the long term financial sustainability of the firm, social enterprise or charity, that will carry the innovation forward. In the public sector this means identifying budgets, teams and other resources such as legislation.

Scaling and Diffusion

At this stage there are a range of strategies for growing and spreading an innovation– from organisational growth, through licensing and franchising to federations and looser diffusion. Emulation and inspiration also play a critical role in spreading an idea or practice.

Prompts and Inspirations

In this stage we include all the factors which highlight the need for innovation as well as the inspirations which spark it. This stage involves diagnosing the problem and framing the question in such a way that root causes, not just symptoms, will be tackled. Framing the right question is half way to finding the right solution.

Systemic change

This is the ultimate goal of social innovation. Systemic change usually involves the interaction of many elements: social movements, business models, laws and regulations, data and infrastructures, and entirely new ways of thinking and doing. Systemic change generally involves new frameworks or architectures made up of many smaller innovations. Social innovations commonly come up against the barriers and hostility of an old order. Pioneers may side step these barriers, but the extent to which they can grow will often depend on the creation of new conditions to make the innovations economically viable. These conditions include new technologies, supply chains, institutional forms, skills, and regulatory and fiscal frameworks. Systemic innovation commonly involves changes in the public sector, private sector, grant economy and household sector, usually over long periods of time.