Pathways to Systemic Change

Four inspiring stories and a new set of variables to understand social innovation

The growing global movement of social innovation, which can simply be described as “new ideas that solve social problems” is evolving at an unforeseen pace and we are witnessing an increase in both volume of social innovations as well as types of approach. This book has been inspired by a desire to deepen our understanding of social innovation and its role in addressing today’s most pressing social, economic and environmental challenges.

You can download a free copy of the full publication in Spanish here, or buy a hard copy or a PDF copy in English here.

What is social innovation?
Definitions of social innovation range from the simple, “new ideas (products, services and models) developed to fulfil unmet social needs[1] to the more complex; “novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.[2]  Three essential characteristics of social innovation can be distilled from the most cited definitions; first the novelty and effectiveness of the idea, secondly its orientation towards solving a social problem (encompassing social, environmental, economic and ethical challenges), and finally the generation of  collective rather than individual value.

Social innovation can also take diverse forms, it can be a product, a production process or a piece of technology, however it can also be an idea, a principle, new legislation, a social movement, an intervention or some combination of all of these. “Innovation is often given complex definitions; we prefer the simple one, ¨New ideas that work.””[3]

There is also a family of related terms such as  social entrepreneurship, social enterprise and social innovation which refer to different aspects of this emerging sector.  Social entrepreneurship explores the personal qualities of the individuals behind the innovation, such as leadership, radical thinking and the capacity to innovate and inspire others. Social enterprise refers to the organisational model able to generate blended (social and economic) value.  Social innovation however is often seen as more far reaching and radical, even promoting systemic change.

Inspired by the dynamism of current thinking on social innovation Heloise Buckland and David Murillo, authors of “Pathways to Systemic Change” published by ESADE’s Institute of Social Innovation[4] set out to define a set of variables to better understand the potential of any given social innovation for bringing about systemic change.  These variables cover a range of aspects including the level of social transformation achieved, the strategies deployed to work across sectors, financial sustainability, innovation type and finally, the potential to scale or replicate.

Four inspiring examples
The authors go on to analyse examples of social innovation through the lens of these five variables;  Avaaz, a global web movement aiming to close the gap between the world we have and the world people want with over 20 million members in 194 countries; Barcelona Food Bank with a mission to fight poverty and food waste, collecting and redistributing over 2million€ of food every month; the Behaviourial Insights Team,  applying behavioural economics to public policy across UK government, achieving unprecedented cost savings and social policy objectives and Barcelona exchange networks, self-organised, money-less neighbourhood exchange systems operating across neighbourhoods in Barcelona.

Finally, as the world’s current challenges are so complex and diverse there will never be a one size fits all model for social innovation. Its very nature as new, better ways of solving social problems means that it doesn´t make sense to create tidy definitions, but rather to create environments that allow for the process of creative destruction with a social purpose to prosper and the variables we propose aim to contribute to a better understanding of these environments.

Heloise Buckland, author of “Pathways to Systemic Change”, co-founder of Barcelonya, and researcher at ESADE.


[1] Bacon et. al 2008.
[2] Phills et al. 2008.
[3] Mulgan et al. 2007.
[4] Full publication available in spanish here or in English here.

This post is also available in: French, Spanish, Catalan