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Commercial vs. Social Innovation

In the US and most developed countries, the commercial successes of technological innovations are a thousand times more frequent than successful social innovations.  If an entrepreneur believes that a business can be made out of a new idea for products (or services or information), all that is usually needed is a business plan that investors believe.  For the required financing, the plan shows reasonable expectations for profit or for business success criteria other than profit, like market share, cash flow, or return on investment.  Customers are either individuals if the business is aimed at the consumer market or other businesses, if not.  If sufficiently satisfied that the products meet their needs and offer some advantage over alternatives, customers buy and pay for it.  The business has initial success.  If the product has a large enough market potential or can be changed to make a larger market possible, the new business can go on to be a great success. 

There are thousands of large businesses that increase their success annually and tens of thousands of small ones that start down the success route every year in the US alone.  Historically in most economic eras, for every large business success, there are about five failures and four marginal successes.  These are far better odds than social innovators face.

Major social innovations are rarely successful.  They usually take many years before they are accepted and, judging by results, are a thousand times more difficult to achieve than a technological/commercial success.  Why is that?  Law, culture, and economic realities have fostered that outcome.  Much of the problem comes from increasingly expensive economic and legal systems, based on adversarial relationships and biased by the penetration of money evaluations into more and more relationships.  It is interesting that a few social innovations underway attempt to chip away at that kind of bias.  The dominant role of money is the most important single reason why social innovation is so difficult, but by no means the only one. 

How lopsided is the situation?  Every year there are hundreds of books published, some best sellers, telling people how to make a success in business.  There are literally thousands of schools and university professors that teach how to be a success in business.  There are very few books or websites focusing on how to be successful with social innovations.  One was the brainchild of William Drayton (See www.ashoka.org).  In the occasional book on successful innovation, the innovator tends to be portrayed as an inspiring saint or a genius whose intellect, knowledge, or wisdom is well beyond most of us.  This might mislead the ordinary person who would like to make a difference, would like to help the world, who needs to understand what a social innovator does generically.  The Life of a Social Innovator may be helpful.