Innovation embodies many of our Empowerment Core Values. On-going innovation is dependent upon a high level of collaboration, accountability, outcomes focus, empathy, and throws in one key element. Risk. When we innovate we fail. Or as Thomas Edison famously put it “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.

It is very easy to become obstinate about a brilliant idea you have to change the world, “It’s eloquent, it is empowering, nobody seems to have thought of it and it confronts all of the complex challenges faced!” Once you trial out what could well be the ‘greatest solution ever created’, well….it might not work like the panacea you thought it would. So how much time and resources do you put into tweaking it? When is it time to accept that a complete rethink may be in order? It is important for us to make these kind of decisions objectively whilst considering the overall organisational goals as much as the specific project goals. In a social enterprise where resources are often scarce but innovation is what drives us towards our vision, we require a streamlined and participatory innovation process where failure engenders determination. In fact, you may even catch us smiling when we fail as we realize the importance of newly attained knowledge and insights, and the new opportunities that they present.

Why is innovation so important to our model?

The starting point is being honest about who we are. Do we solve every problem faced by every family in every community that we work in? Unfortunately no. However, we continuously aspire to achieve more and facilitate a more profound impact for our clients (local families, schools and organizations). In fact most of our leadership meetings are focused upon learning from each other’s experiences and ideas to become better at what we do. Social Entrepreneur Corps (SEC) directly engages in this paradigm of learning, sharing, experiencing and co-creating. As a team comprised of international staff and seasonal SEC interns, we never lose sight of a vision to institute the means, ability and inspiration for all families (in the communities we work in) to be able to improve their own lives. We are ‘Outcomes Focused’ (core value). We support families to overcome the challenges that negatively affect their wellbeing, economies and opportunities for education and hold ourselves accountable to ‘what changed?’ and ‘what happens next?’. As we are driven by these values and ideals there is an inherent need for continued learning and to be able to adapt, and create. As Muhammed Alli once said “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life”. Hence we must ensure that our services mature and develop as our experience and knowledge continue to grow, a never ending continuum whereby we are intrinsically bound to innovation.

What allows us to innovate?

  • An organizational understanding of the importance of innovation and an incredibly dedicated team who are dynamic and comfortable working with uncertainty. What happens if we try something and it doesn’t work? We objectively and collaboratively (core value) evaluate and decide on the next step. It’s a team effort whereby we all learn from each other’s failures.
  • Did you know that Apple created a games console called the Pippin? Probably not, and that would be because it was a big failure. Apple could absorb the cost of this failure (from a reputation standpoint) because at the time the MAC was their main ‘menu item’ and the Pippin was a ‘side order’. Apple did not lose client trust. Over the years, CES and SEC have built up a solid range of ‘main menu’ services. This allows us to try new things (and fail) without comprising the integrity of our work and jeopardize our credibility.
  • We work in the same communities year round. We hold ourselves accountable to the families in each community we serve, and we prioritize our relationships with these communities. Relationships built upon collaboration, trust and good intentions allow us to have honest conversations with community leaders and families about which services and products that are important to them, as well as share new ideas. If we present something that is not a priority for their community, our relationship is not negatively affected. In fact, these conversations maintain a healthy innovation path!
  • Fresh eyes, an injection of creativity and enthusiasm go a long way. SEC interns are a real driver of innovation in our work (see below).

How do we innovate?

We begin with an Inclusive and Collaborative (core values) approach. International team members, local teams and SEC throughout the year maintain a focus on critically evaluating the successes and constraints of our innovations. To quote the innovation author Scott Berkun, “Big thoughts are fun to romanticize, but it’s many small insights coming together that bring big ideas into the world.” SEC interns play a fundamental role here as they work with local teams to provide insights and recommendations from a unique perspective.

We often innovate with ‘design thinking’ principles. When we leverage the design thinking approach, observation and defining problems take centre stage before working out potential solutions. It is a completely participatory process where everyone’s ideas are valid. It is a critical step particularly when developing new strategies, and again is a key area in which SEC facilitates the development of our services.

Starting with the solution before defining the problem can often be a sure path to failure. You may have read about some pretty insensitive/impractical solutions being deployed in the name of development work, or solutions that just didn’t solve the problem they were intended for, like this mosquito bed net in Africa…


However, we can use this antithesis approach to design thinking. Occasionally we see a potential ‘solution’ or idea that just we intuitively feel warrants testing. Our intuition is based out of experience, knowledge and most importantly empathy (core value) derived from   countless experiences and relationships harboured by our team and SEC through working and living with local communities. Our initial step will be to work with a proto-type or test run for learning, as opposed to thinking about a final product. We call this try-storming. It’s great as it has low stakes and anyone who has an idea can easily put something together to share with community members. Once a try-storm yields positive results and a positive reaction from potential beneficiaries, we can then begin the process of refining the innovation or strategy in order to arrive at a final product/service solution. This is what try-storming looked like for our rocket stove after SEC interns and CES staff teamed up on the iteration phases.


With anything we innovate, we recognize that our clients (families, schools and organisations) are the decision-makers who determine what works and what doesn’t. Our close relationship with each of these groups is perhaps the most fundamental aspect to successful innovation. As we serve clients who live across diverse cultures and environments, and work through many teams, we aim to develop innovative solutions that are as simple and replicable as possible. Like a marque we must be able to break them down and rebuild them in accordance with local needs and conditions. And like a marque, simplicity allows our teams to customize the interior and position the structure in alignment with the designated space. In the words of two great innovators Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” (Albert Einstein). “Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple” (Steve Jobs).