Brexit has rocked the UK and cast doubt on its future. My recent work in Northern Ireland shows how social innovation can help nations plot a way forward in these VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambiguous) times.

The Melting Pot recently completed a project aimed at supporting social innovation in Northern Ireland. The project was commissioned by the Building Change Trust who have a neat definition of social innovation:

“Social Innovation simply refers to the creation and implementation of new solutions to social problems, that are more effective or efficient than existing solutions. It can take the form of new products, services, models, markets or processes.”

Sounds like social enterprise too right? So here’s a crucial difference:

“Social innovations often occur through cross-sectoral collaboration and indeed social innovations themselves can be considered ‘business-model agnostic’ in the sense that they can be delivered through grant-funded organisations, social enterprises or private businesses.”

This is the heart of what’s distinctive about social innovation and why it’s so critical in these VUCA times. Social innovation has social impact at its core (as opposed to profit maximisation) but is not the exclusive preserve of non-profit making organisations. Instead it is characterised by collaboration between different sectors.

Belfast Mural

With unprecedented and challenging times ahead, it’s common sense that society’s problems won’t be cracked by one sector alone. Brexit is likely to result in greater and prolonged austerity with Government shrinking yet further and grant-funded charities fighting to survive as resources contract. Private and corporate businesses want to have a social impact but generally don’t have the know-how to make a real difference. Academia struggles to turn understanding into practical action. This is where social innovation can play a role, bringing different actors together to generate new solutions to society’s problems.

Even if we fear the worst, there are always ‘opportunities’ to be had in a VUCA world. So in Northern Ireland, I worked with Building Change Trust to engage diverse partners including academic institutions like Ulster University, enterprise hubs like the Nerve Centre, third sector intermediaries like NICVA as well as the Northern Ireland Executive. The aim is to create a platform that encourages and supports social innovation across the whole country.

Such an approach seems essential now against the backdrop of EU cash disappearing, a lack of enterprise development and ongoing challenges relating to peace and reconciliation. There’s a collective will around finding new answers and new business models, and social innovation is seen as a route to uncovering these.

And social innovation has an impressive track record in delivering change through pioneering models such as distance learning (Open University, The Khan Academy); micro-credit (Grameen) and the fair trade movement.

A couple of questions to ponder: What could be possible, if we were proactive in supporting social innovation, rather than sustaining the traditional Voluntary / Community / Social Enterprise sector as a whole? Who are you working with right now, and have you got the right mix of partners at the table to really make an effective difference? What opportunities for good can you grasp in these VUCA times?

Claire Carpenter, Founder and Managing Director of The Melting Pot

Read more about how we can put social innovation to work for the people of Scotland