Four great examples of social innovation happening right now

Submission to Open Ideo in response to getting kids to eat healthier: a smarter shopping card

Perhaps the coolest thing about the web, social media and the multi-billion dollar infrastructure (Google, the Cloud, 3G, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Skype) that is now available to all of us isn’t that we can simply connect with one another in more ways than ever, posting status updates, sharing funny videos, and uploading photos.

Nor is it the new power we have to generate content, hi-jack brands, or even become brands ourselves.

Rather it’s that we can actually do things of value. We can effect positive social change and make the world just a little bit better (or at least try) by uniting like-minded people, inviting participation, understanding the appeal of extrinsic rewards and leveraging the communities we join and build.

Here are four really great examples worth paying attention to. Note that I’m involved with two of them now, the Uniform Project to which I’ve been asked to be on an advisory board, and No Right Brain Left Behind, which I just signed up to support.

Open Ideo

Ideo is a one of the world’s great design companies, taking on monumental challenges — access to safe drinking water, immunization delivery –from the perspective of design thinking, an approach that considers the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the criteria for success. But in the last year they’ve launched Open Ideo, an invitation to all of us to join together and design for the community.

Their first challenge, in partnership with Chef Jamie Oliver, was to raise kids’ awareness of the benefits of fresh food so they can make better choices. The idea is that rather than talk about obesity perhaps we can do something about it with ideas and solutions generated by those who have the most at stake — parents, families and even the establishments that grow, distribute and sell us our food.

What can we learn from Open Ideo?

  • Ideas can come from anyone and anywhere
  • You don’t need to be a professional designer to think like one
  • Extrinsic rewards are as important as intrinsic rewards when it comes to motivation

The Uniform Project

Sheena Matheiken launched her social initiative last year as a fundraiser. She wore the same dress every day for year to make a statement about the value of simplifying your life and wardrobe. In the process she raised over $100,000 to send kids to school in India and learned that her fans and followers would help in a variety of ways — buying dresses, donating to causes, providing accessories, offering to spread the word. The support she encountered gave her the confidence to leave her day job and turn her passion into a new company with a model that proves, “You can do business while doing good.”

TEDxDubai 2010| Sheena Matheiken from Giorgio Ungania on Vimeo.

Now she is designing and manufacturing dresses using sustainable materials and techniques with a real focus on helping women both simplify their wardrobe and express their individuality. She’s found a new way to raise money for worthy causes, by inviting emerging “celebrities” to wear the same dress for 30 consecutive days in support of a charity. And she’s allowing customers to get involved by creating their own Uniform Project with a do-it-yourself program that includes everything you need to make a dress, host a site and get the word out.

What can we learn from Uniform Project

  • Business motives and social good can co-exist
  • There are multiple ways to involve your community — they can be customers, donors, participants
  • The content you create is as important as the product you make

The Common

This is the latest from Alex Bogusky, Rob Schuham and their Fearless Revolution. After having spent a good chunk of his career selling burgers, fries and pizza, Alex has shifted his focus onto creating a new kind of relationship between consumers and corporations.

To his credit, he’s not simply talking about it or applying pressure to current companies to change their ways, he’s instead attempting to incubate future brands and companies that will embrace social responsibility as part of their core mission.

The Common intends to assemble a new kind of capitalist community, populated by all kinds of creative people. It will charge its members and participants with identifying problems, collaborating on solutions, “out-cubating” new companies, funding the new initiatives and spreading the word.

The Common is about transitioning from competitive advantage to collaborative advantage. In some ways a little like Open Ideo but in this case the desired outcomes are actually new companies.

Knowing Alex and his determination, this could succeed.

What we can learn from The Common (even in its idea phase)

  • there are alternative ways to define a brand
  • the web gives us new ways to collaborate
  • there’s life after advertising

No Right Brain Left Behind

This very well might be The Common model in the works, also not unlike what Open Ideo strives to do. A bunch of creative types get together, perhaps inspired by the likes of Sir Ken Robinson, to overcome the “creativity crisis” in our public schools. Given that our schools have put all their emphasis on narrow definitions of intelligence and standardized test scores, neglecting to identify and develop all the other intelligence that are equally important, it’s time to come to the rescue.

So as part of Social Media Week 2011, NRBLB is asking the creative community — advertising agencies, innovation companies, design consultancies, and communication schools to submit ideas in the form of tools, applications, or products that might help school’s better prepare kids to solve 21st century problems.

The program (here’s the plan) already has media partners lined up and funding to pilot the best ideas. Whether we end up with a list of great ideas, or programs that actually get implemented remains to be seen. (Anyone who’s taken on teachers and education in America knows it’s an uphill battle.) But it’s a great idea on many fronts.

What we can learn from NRBLB

  • people are willing to come together for good cause
  • it’s easier than ever to organize and unite a community
  • inclusiveness is the best invitation you can issue

Hope you’ll find a way to participate in some, if not all, of the above projects.  Or better yet, create your own.  Thoughts?


These are all great examples. The recent Compostmodern Conference in San Francisco included many inspiring projects, particularly Fuseproject, the Pratt Design Incubator, SOUP and The Phoenix Commotion. Ferran Adria of the restaurant is developing the Alicia Foundation where creativity and technological innovation will be utilized to improve health and nutrition in society.


I really like the idea of enabling kids to solve 21st century problems. So much of the curriculum would seem to be centred on non-essential subjects, and in my opinion it could really do with a good shake up!


Hey Edward! This is a great post full of links that I will soon be clicking! I love this them and hope to see it grow and expand uniformly in the near future:

"Business motives and social good can co-exist"

After I go through everything I will be sure to return and leave a comment with my thoughts on the projects. Thanks for the write-up!


These ideas are fantastic. And really, just the beginning of social marketing + social networks + business. Combining these worlds is very exiciting.


Nice to see technology and social media being used for social good.