Recently, I’ve been struck by some noticeable patterns that impactful social innovations share. While many successful consumer product and service designs are inherently complex (and the social kind is certainly no exception), there seem to be at least five apparent characteristics of effective social entrepreneurship:
- They are social. It might seem obvious but it’s worth noting that a design for a distinct society has to take hold in the community of people that it will serve and perhaps beyond. In that scenario community members purposefully transact the value of the design or certain properties of it. For Project Masiluleke (which means “lend a helping hand” in Zulu), frog designed a transaction that enabled widespread awareness of low-cost diagnostic HIV processes and tools for people in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa where infection rates are over 40%. A text message sent to people containing an 800 number starts an exchange of information that ultimately leads to a visit to a clinic where they can get a self-testing kit, and the message encourages healthy preventative behaviors even if they don’t.
- They are small. Remember those little yellow rubber wristbands that appeared on the scene 6 years ago? The Livestrong wristband is, on average, a two or three inch diameter piece of silicon that sells for a dollar each, or in packs of 10, 100, and 1,200. They quickly became a worldwide fashion statement and continue to raise loads of money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation in addition to influencing the fundraising efforts of many other charities (to date, they have hauled in over 500 million dollars for the LAF).
- They are simple. The Hippo Water Roller is a plastic barrel formed in two parts that can hold 22 gallons of water and was first used in Kgautswane, South Africa. The original model was recently redesigned by AC4D advisor Emily Pilloton’s firm Project H to reduce production and shipping costs. The idea itself is visually striking and dead-simple: instead of transporting 5 gallon buckets on their heads multiple times a day over rocky roads and through dense heat, poor, frail women can now push a bright blue barrel that carries significantly more water and cuts down on their trips, freeing them up to meet other needs.
- They are skillful. Mothers 2 Mothers is a counseling service in Africa that employs HIV positive “Women Mentors” to counsel HIV positive mothers. Nearly 2,000 mentors counsel about 20% of the HIV positive mothers on the continent, but the service wasn’t originally designed that way. Mitch Besser was working as a doctor at a clinic in South Africa and finding it hard to explain to affected mothers how they should begin treating their disease. So, he had some of his patients – also HIV infected mothers – do it for him. These women had the empathy, nuance, and communication skills to get through to women whom they shared a condition with and help them navigate the road to better health.
- They are scalable. A few years ago Dr. Peter Provonost of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine created a five-step checklist for doctors and nurses to follow when inserting intravenous lines. His advice was simple and included washing hands, using antiseptic at insertion points, and other straightforward instructions that were easy to follow and therefore easy to adopt. These educational, memorable, and actionable steps were put into practice by a lot of staff members: after 18 months of using Dr. Provonost’s checklist Michigan ICUs said they saved an estimated $175 million and about 1,500 lives.
Social, small, simple, skillful, and scalable. Consider this checklist when designing your next social innovation.