Communities everywhere are facing complex social challenges that defy simple solutions. A common reason why progress stops is that no single organization or sector can solve these challenges on their own. Despite their best intentions, organizations working alone fall short of sustainable solutions.  We need new solutions that are both creative and collaborative. This is where community innovation can make all the difference.

If you check the literature you will see a range of definitions for community innovation and related terms like social innovation. Many of these definitions are more complex than they really need to be.  We offer this working definition as a guide, based on our 25 years of experience in the field:

Community innovation is a collaborative process for creating solutions that work at the community level. The innovators may come from within and across nonprofits, government, philanthropy, business, and the community.  The focus could include services and supports for health, education, housing, nutrition, safety, social connection, economic empowerment, and more.  The intended results are better health, equity, and quality of life for community members.

To expand on this definition:

  • The goal of community innovation is positive impact for a defined population at the neighborhood or community level.
  • The population could be any group of people who share common needs or aspirations.
  • The focus may include health, education, housing, nutrition, safety, economic empowerment, and other factors that influence individual and community health and well-being.
  • The scope could include any aspects of the system affecting the people involved (policies, programs, services, supports, practices, processes, systems, structures, culture).
  • The innovators may come from any sector, including nonprofits, government, business, philanthropy, and advocacy.
  • The guiding principles include creativity, collaboration, inclusion, effectiveness, equity, scale, and sustainability.  These principles are essential for assuring focus and producing results.
  • The relationships developed through social innovation have value in themselves, and ideally provide a foundation for ongoing collaboration and innovation.

Community innovation is not something entirely new or off the shelf.  The fact is, community innovation is an evolving concept that is being applied to solve challenges in just about every community across the country.  At CHS we are dedicated to spreading the discipline of community innovation through elevation and all of our training and consulting work.

At CHS, and in this elevation learning network, we focus on community innovation for health improvement.  In practice, this means innovation to improve services and supports for health and the social and economic factors that influence health opportunity.  To illustrate just some of the possibilities from our sphere of work, consider this list of real-world innovations produced by our client partners at CHS:

  • New access points for healthy food in underserved neighborhoods.
  • A new service to help uninsured community members access dental care.
  • A program to help people in recovery gain and sustain employment.
  • A simpler technology for helping people manage chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension at home.
  • school health program that incorporates physical activity throughout the school day.
  • telehealth program that helps veterans in rural areas access mental health services.
  • A complete street design that improves access and safety for people with disabilities.
  • A community network that coordinates delivery of health care and social care for a defined population.

All of these initiatives are practical examples of community innovation for health improvement.  The full range of possibilities is much more expansive, and could include innovations for health, education, housing, nutrition, safety, social connection, economic empowerment, and more.

Community innovation is not limited to the nonprofit or government sector. Potential partners include:

  • Nonprofits in health, education, human services, community development, community finance, and beyond.
  • Public institutions at the local, state, and federal level.
  • Philanthropic organizations in their roles as conveners and catalysts as well as funders.
  • Business entities including associations as well as individual organizations.
  • Community advocates including individuals and coalitions.

All of these entities can play a vital role in supporting community innovation for health improvement. The possibilities for innovation expand when people collaborate within and across sectors to innovate for a shared social purpose.

Community innovation works best when people come together with a deep commitment to solving a challenge in creative ways.  It helps to have a process model or framework to provide focus and keep the process moving.

At CHS we use a proven process model for supporting community innovation. We have tested and refined this model over 25 years of experience with hundreds of partner organizations.  The basic steps are outlined below.

  • 1. Focus. Select a focus for innovation (health, education, housing, nutrition, community safety, economic empowerment, other)
  • 2. Engage. Engage key stakeholders as partners in exploring innovation.
  • 3. Assess. Assess community needs and assets, and consider possibilities for innovation.
  • 4. Design. Design and test innovation ideas using design thinking strategies.
  • 5. Develop. Develop capacity for implementation (people, policies, processes, practices, systems, resources).
  • 6. Implement. Implement and optimize the innovation based on experience and feedback.
  • 7. Evaluate. Evaluate viability based on early feedback.
  • 8. Scale. Bring the innovation to scale based on reach and impact relative to cost.
  • 9. Sustain. Sustain the innovation for continuing operation by demonstrating value to key funders and partners.
  • 10. Spread. Spread the innovation to new populations or communities based on documented design and performance

The keys to getting started with community innovation include a creative vision and a collaborative spirit. A creative vision is needed to see possibilities where others see only problems. A collaborative spirit is needed to bring people together for learning and action.

Keeping these two keys in mind, community innovation can be practiced by people and organizations from any sector, and it can be implemented using a proven process model. This flexibility makes community innovation an essential strategy for addressing the complex challenges facing our communities today.

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