Social innovation is not inclusive

Britain must pursue an ‘inclusive innovation’ agenda if it wants to improve its chances of reducing poverty, social exclusion and inequality on its shores, says Harsha Patel.

[Published in the Pioneers Post magazine in November 2016).


While there are increasing levels of support for social innovation in Britain, what continues to be neglected is the support and opportunities to enable beneficiaries from disadvantaged backgrounds to help create the innovations that can solve the challenges they face.

Beneficiaries bring unparalleled expertise to the innovation process – personal experiences and knowledge that are invaluable to the process of creating relevant, effective and sustainable solutions. Despite this, they are rarely given the opportunity to be the creators, innovators and owners of innovation; the input they have tends to be relatively tokenistic. Their engagement is usually managed by the innovator to service their own needs – for precious insights, or to demonstrate representativeness, for example. Beneficiaries are usually only passive recipients of social innovation.

Some of the many barriers which prevent beneficiaries from participating meaningfully within innovation include: the language used, a lack of relatable role models, the cost of participating and being unable to access expertise which could build their capacity to innovate. These exist because innovation ecosystems are not designed with innovators from economically disadvantaged, low-income backgrounds in mind.

So, there isn’t a level playing field for social innovation in Britain. By failing to respond to this, we demonstrate that we do not value co-creation and involvement by those who are outside the mainstream. This is problematic and unjust because people are getting ‘left behind’.

This type of exclusive, top-down innovation can compound social exclusion and thus, inequality. Our work in this country to strengthen inclusion and build an inclusive economy and society could also be undermined by such innovation practices.

Therefore, Britain must pursue ‘inclusive innovation’: co-created with or led by beneficiaries from disadvantaged backgrounds, for the purposes of improving lives.

The inclusion of citizens from disadvantaged backgrounds within innovation processes and policies would be a game changer, especially for reducing both poverty and social exclusion.

In India, there are programmes such as those delivered by the Honey Bee Network and Barefoot College, which proactively seek ‘hidden’ grassroots ingenuity and invest in bottom-up initiatives and co-creation. Outcomes include reduced poverty and enhanced life chances for some of the poorest in society.

Inclusive innovation in Britain is a chance to improve social outcomes and create novel models of innovation by involving beneficiaries meaningfully in innovation as creators and co-creators to help solve our socio-economic challenges.

For citizens on the margins of society who participate in this way, this could be life-changing. This opportunity could give them greater control over the decisions that affect them; it would benefit them developmentally and provide a chance to make a better living. The evidence strongly suggests there is a correlation between meaningful inclusion of potential beneficiaries in innovation and improved life chances.

There are some good examples of inclusive innovations in Britain such as the RSA’s Citizens’ Economic Council, the Open Book Project in London and the Merseyside Youth Association, but this practice is sparse.

While apathy and complacency are partly to blame for inaction, the limitations in our understanding about the impact of inclusive practice and of how to implement meaningful inclusion of beneficiaries have also delayed realisation of its benefits. There are also huge gaps in research on this area in Britain.

I end this piece with a plea to those of you creating or supporting social innovation to address poverty and disadvantage in Britain. Please take a little time to explore how you can strengthen outcomes through ‘meaningful’ inclusion practice and by improving access to your own expertise and resources for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.


Doing Social is a social enterprise promoting inclusive innovation as the fairer approach to social change and helping to create the conditions for inclusive innovation to grow and become the norm. They are co-building a toolkit to help organisations to embed inclusion and co-creation principles into their programmes and systems.