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Op-ed: Nicole Helwig and Dr. Natalie Slawinski

Social enterprise as a pathway to social innovation

Part of a special feature showcasing Memorial’s innovation ecosystem, a pan-university effort focused on supporting the development and success of innovators across Newfoundland and Labrador.  


By Nicole Helwig and Dr. Natalie Slawinski

Innovation is often associated with high tech R&D and the development of new services and products to adapt to needs in the marketplace.

But innovation is also social. What does that look like?

And how can it lead to a more sustainable, inclusive and prosperous society?

At the Centre for Social Enterprise (CSE) we seek to enhance the quality of the human experience through promoting and facilitating social enterprise and social innovation.

Power of business to serve society

We are a partnership between the Faculty of Business Administration, the School of Social Work and the School of Music, bringing together different perspectives, skill sets and knowledge based on a common desire to achieve positive and lasting social change.

Dr. Natalie Slawinski
Co-author Dr. Natalie Slawinski
Photo: Submitted

This unique cross-disciplinary partnership is in itself innovative. We are not the “same old, same old!”

Social enterprises are organizations that use business principles to achieve social aims.

They create value for society in a variety of ways, including by improving our quality of life, enhancing our cultural assets and protecting our ecosystems.

They use the sale of products and/or services to generate revenue to achieve their social aims.

In other words, they use the power of business to ensure they can continue to serve society over the long term.

Balancing social objectives with bottom line

Social enterprises also give us an opportunity to consider things differently and to view organizations through a different lens.

We are witnessing a shift from profit-focused firms to organizations that balance social objectives with the bottom line.

Social enterprise as a form of business innovation can be seen in such examples as the Fogo Island Inn, a social business whose profits flow back into the Shorefast Foundation, whose mission is economic and cultural resilience for Fogo Island.

Another example is Enactus Memorial’s Project SucSeed, which seeks to address the need for fresh affordable produce in Northern Canada in an economic and environmentally friendly way.

Social enterprises operate in challenging and creative ways that brings elements of both the private and non-profit sectors closer together.

Inclusive innovation

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development defines inclusive innovations as “innovations that directly serve the welfare of lower-income and excluded groups.”

These innovations are tied to social development and social enterprise, creating work opportunities for those who otherwise are marginalized and face barriers to participating in economic activity.

“[Social innovation] is an approach that recognizes there are existing power imbalances.”

Social innovation occurs when different disciplines and sectors come together to address complex social challenges. It is an approach that recognizes there are existing power imbalances.

Influence is not shared equally and requires deliberate and conscious efforts to ensure inclusive participation and decision-making.

It is about building creative connections fuelled by genuine relationships that break down silos. Social innovation happens through conversations with unusual partners that shift mindsets.

Create social value

The federal government recognises the importance of inclusive growth through its Inclusive Innovation Agenda. The provincial government is working on a Social Enterprise Action Plan.

The evolving social enterprise sector has an important role to play in building an economy that is both innovative and inclusive.

There is potential to significantly change the competitive environment through, for example, leveraging existing procurement spending to create social value (social procurement) which could lead to market access for social enterprises.

The movement towards greater social responsibility of organizations of all types stands to benefit us all.

Creativity and innovation

Creativity is the basis of innovation.

It can be used to help us navigate these times of rapid change and uncertainty.

“How can we nurture our students as change-makers and social change leaders?”

As an institution of higher education, how can Memorial University create the conditions for creativity that will enable social enterprise and social innovation to thrive?

How can we nurture our students as change-makers and social change leaders?

We can start by developing interdisciplinary curriculum, engaging in cross-collaborative research on social innovation and through collective action. Memorial University can lead by creating learning environments that promote positive and lasting social change.

Imagine if Memorial University was a leader in social innovation where students, faculty and staff come together to imagine the future and act on it. We’ve already started on this journey!

We have begun to make a more sustainable and equitable future.


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