Better societies by design.

There are so many social problems to solve, you’d be forgiven for thinking a social innovation leader is a job for life. A never-ending demand, constantly fuelled by government reform, market forces and generational change.

Recent history would suggest otherwise! There is, at times, an intense level of energy behind businesses, internal government teams and social enterprise focused on transformational change. Intelligent, experienced and motivated people, sometimes well-funded, addressing culture, systems, knowledge, access etc. But too often projects stall, dissipate or end. The commitment wanes. The results not impressive enough for the timeframes given. Or leadership within key organisations changes, and with it the focus for activity.

A key difficulty of a design process – particularly a co-design process – is that the end result is not known. There is inevitably a leap of faith. The organisation investing in the process must see the value in the entire process – knowing that, at each stage, insights are gained – rather than a fully-formed prototype emerging, like Excalibur, at the end.

A social innovation model that is adaptive to context and business needs

The job of a consultant is to interrogate a problem, develop a process to gather and assess insights before moving to design a solution, and a strategy for its launch or implementation.

Here at Ellis Jones, we have hybridised models and approaches in response to a diverse range of briefs. Over time the similarities between each response have surfaced. And this is the foundation social innovation model we apply today: one that is adaptive to context and business needs (within resource constraints).

The model is used to design and develop digital gateways (portals), services, technologies, physical objects (industrial design), and communication campaigns and materials. It also serves to establish and develop partnerships essential for addressing social needs.

The diagram below (press to enlarge) defines our high-level model. It features:

  1. Contextual analysis – an assessment of the forces driving change and affecting the organisation, and the communities it works within; definition of the problems
  2. Target user (customer/consumer/beneficiary) analysis – an analysis of the user groups, the influences on their decision making, their lived experience and journey relevant to the company
  3. Shared value framing and assessment – a process of taking the insights gained from 1) and 2) to find focus areas for design that are most likely to lead to effective solutions
  4. Development – design and testing of solutions (with users, partners and employees) to arrive at a prototype
  5. Modelling – assessing the social and business return on investment; preparing a business case for endorsement.



Very early in our social impact journey at Ellis Jones, we identified that to really create shared value and for a concept to deliver on its promise, there needs to be a matching of deep sector knowledge with techniques, competencies and emotional intelligence. Our social innovation diagram above achieves this.

Importantly, we record information at each step of the process (from photography of workshops and whiteboards, to participant commentary and ideas in formation) and place it into the business case that gets stronger over time. This ensures we keep a check on actual (not perceived) progress while providing internal stakeholders with a strong story to tell internally, to relevant stakeholders.

Social innovation language

One of the key issues any leader faces when talking about social innovation, is language. It is surprisingly hard to define innovation projects and goals in terms every person required on the project (including community members and employees) can grasp, seeing the relevance to them and sparking a desire to be involved.

Here are simple definitions of a few key terms.

  • Social impact: an umbrella term to describe disciplines, projects and policies organised to understand and respond to social needs, measurably (impact is measurable – this is a defining aspect of all social impact projects).
  • Social innovation: innovation that addresses social needs, usually with positive benefits to the organisations involved in the project.
  • Shared value: is the strategy and outcome of work to address social needs using business’ expertise and resources, and generate the necessary returns for companies to scale activity and impact over time.

Taking everyone with you

Every project needs a company leader and independent facilitator working together to create momentum and identify challenges people may have engaging with the process.

From the outset of any project, we have learned to be structured while setting expectations that the process will evolve and change. Agile principles work well here because project leaders need to be committed to change, and this is often not the mindset of a strategy, finance or operations manager.

We all want to do good in the world, and there are often clear commercial benefits to doing so, but designing, developing and managing a project takes a complex mix of business modelling and facilitation techniques, strategy expertise, communication planning and, the one that often matters most, relationship management skills.

You need to manage the expectations of the wide-eyed zealots as much as the dismissals of people who fear what they don’t know, or see anything new as more work to avoid. You must continually remind participants of the original premise of the project (that there is a very real need to innovative) and, at every meeting and in every communication, keep surprising people while reporting on healthy progress.

Bring the magic, just not too much!

Unsure where to start on your social innovation journey? Talk to us today.