Innovation. It’s the word that’s everywhere you turn, from business, to politics, to development, to technology, to education. Strike up a conversation around these topics and chances are innovation will get dropped in there at some point. What do you do, what do you support, how do you meet this challenge, how do you become successful? – the answer always seems to come back to the need to innovate. Indeed, the notion of innovation has become so popular, it has been labelled "the buzzword of the decade"[1].

But what actually is innovation? And is it really the answer to all our problems?

Innovation is more than just ideas

Innovation is more than just ideas

Innovation is referred to so pervasively that sometimes it’s actual meaning becomes obscured and diluted. Sweeping statements – for example - I support innovative social entrepreneurs – sound great, but what do they actually imply? Innovation is really just the process of coming up with new ways to solve important problems or surmount pressing challenges. More than just ‘good ideas’, the process of innovation also involves implementation, testing and refining stages to turn ideas into reality. Legitimate innovation requires tangible change.

When you consider innovation in this way, as a process of creating change view new ways of thinking, it’s not hard to see why innovation is so prevalent in the modern vernacular. More than just a means for corporations to retain their competitive edge, innovation represents an opportunity for coming up with new ideas to overcome collective global issues from climate change to economic crisis. Given the glaringly obvious failure of old ideas, innovative thinking to combat these problems is not just a nice refrain, but a strategic necessity. Urama and Acheampong advocate for social innovation; the development of solutions to social problems that are more effective, efficient and sustainable than current solutions.

They point out that “we are in desperate need of a fundamental transformation of social, economic and cultural arrangements. The old paradigm of government aid is simply inadequate to the challenge. What we need instead are creative and innovative solutions for fostering sustainable growth, securing jobs, and increasing competitive abilities”[2]. Innovation, when it involves action beyond the rhetoric, has the capacity to affect widespread social change. Fair trade, distance learning, renewable energy – there are many examples of how innovative processes have resulted in positive impact.

Geeks in Cambodia, a tech-news platform, has designated March as Innovation Month in Cambodia. They note that whilst Cambodia may not be the country that springs to mind as being at the forefront of innovation, innovative solutions are trending across the region as access to technology and education spreads. Smart-phone culture is thriving here, especially in urban areas, and one third of the population has access to the internet. This represents a real opportunity for innovative young people to come together and seek creative solutions to some of Cambodia’s most deeply entrenched social problems. As Geeks in Cambodia point out, “there is still some big gaps in knowledge and creativity in using the technology. We need to foster a culture of playing more with this, and trying new ideas”[3].

Innovation does not need to be confined to technological advances to create social change and growth in Cambodia. There are countless examples of new and innovative ideas that are demonstrating impact. Take for example, the Lady Saving Group (LSG), an informal credit union for women. Faced with the social implications of wedding expenses, where the groom pays for the celebration and the bride thus becomes ‘indebted’ to her husband, the LSG used innovative thinking to come up with a solution. They created a wedding loan with a very low interest rate, encouraging their members to contribute financially to their own weddings and thereby challenge the perceptions that they are something akin to a product in a transaction. The women that have taken up this loan so far have reported feeling like more valued members of their family, with increased decision making power and authority.

Pretty cool right?

At SHE we work with women entrepreneurs. And by nature, entrepreneurs are innovative. Given the potential impact of innovative thinking – to grow businesses, to grow the economy, to provide for families, to solve problems – we are excited to foster an innovative culture with our Program Participants. Innovative thinking and innovative action represents a real chance for Cambodian’s to be agents of positive social change. More than a buzzword, innovation is an opportunity. However, the overuse and generalization of the term is creating confusion of what it is we need when we advocate for more innovation. Michael O’Bryan, founder of the innovation consulting company 360 Thinking points out that we lose sight of the specific skills and behaviors needed to be innovative when this is what we should be focusing on. “Specifically, we need people to possess a series of thinking skills and behavioral traits that result in their ability to discover, develop, and test ideas and solutions that will result in positive changes not only to their prospective fields but also in their daily lives”[4].

Once Cambodian’s have these skills and traits, imagine the future they can create.

- Written by Prue Allen, WhyDev Fellow at SHE Investments