Turning Good Ideas Into Reality: What is Social Innovation?

With more than half of new college graduates unemployed or underemployed, the future can seem bleak for young people. But to Suzi Sosa, that 50 percent represents a wealth of innovation and creativity that can change the world. The key is providing the right tools.

Suzi Sosa
Suzi Sosa 

"The biggest barrier to students being able to make the world better is not a lack of ideas but a lack of practice at actually getting things done, at being entrepreneurial, at taking risks and making decisions," says Sosa, an adjunct professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and executive director of the Dell Social Innovation Challenge.

The Dell Challenge focuses on transforming university students into active social innovators by offering mentors and funding to make good ideas a reality. This fall, Sosa launched the Dell Education Challenge, which focuses on projects related to innovation in K-12 education, with a $30,000 grand prize.

According to Sosa, a social innovation is any program, product or service that delivers significantly greater results than the status quo. "An innovation doesn't have to be new. It doesn't have to be an invention," she says. "It can be an adaptation of an existing idea to a new subject matter or different kind of implementation."

Fresh Thinking

The 2011 winners of the Dell Challenge, TakaTaka Solutions, provide an example of a new implementation of an old idea ­ trash collection.

"This project is in Nairobi where trash is a tremendous problem," Sosa explains. "Unfortunately, the government does not have the resources to pick up and process all of the trash. TakaTaka Solutions has built a financially sustainable social enterprise that does waste collection and waste management, working with local youth organizations in the slum areas of Nairobi."

The workers collect the trash and sort it into organic and inorganic materials. They then recycle or compost as much as 80 percent of the waste, creating jobs for local workers, fertilizer for local farmers from the compost and an affordable collection system in a country where 66 percent of the population can't afford waste collection.

TakaTaka Solutions received $50,000 in prize money to put toward developing their plan into a successful business.

Learning by Doing

Katherine Alfredo and Ellison Carter, both Ph.D. candidates in civil engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, submitted a project called Off Road Science in the 2011 competition. They proposed a mobile science lab for K-12 students, with a focus on inspiring young girls to pursue careers in science and engineering.

"I wanted a program where I could get girls excited about engineering on a more regular basis," said Alfredo, whose experience working with students at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin inspired the idea.

Although their project didn't advance to the finals of the challenge, Carter believes the process of creating their plan was beneficial.

"The process of developing our financial plans and our promotional materials gave me a much clearer sense of how to develop an innovation or idea that I would like to bring to fruition in the future," Carter says.

Bringing Ideas to Life

What started off as a business plan competition with the goal of inspiring students to come up with ideas, the Dell Challenge has evolved to have a much greater focus on action and implementation.

"We have now completely redefined the program to create a platform and environment where students can practice the skills of innovation and entrepreneurship and through that practice remain active social innovators for the rest of their lives," says Sosa.

The Dell Challenge has developed a Web portal where students can create a project page that will allow them to enter the challenge. The portal also facilitates access to potential teammates and mentors.

"Students can now post project pages all year round," Sosa says. "The website is a great place to get feedback if you are in the early stages of your idea and need some help getting it developed." The website also features a "learn" tab, which offers videos about social entrepreneurship and social innovation, descriptions of the program and walk-throughs on how to build a good project page.

As the Dell Challenge expands, Sosa hopes more students will get involved.

"More students participating means more creative ideas," says Sosa. "Innovation can change the world because innovation is ultimately creativity."