so·cial in·no·va·tion, n. (part 4)

by Ben Chesler '15
February 22, 2014

In the final posts of our blog series on social innovation, we asked two students to examine the definition of social innovation on our website. Here Ben Chesler '15, co-founder of the Food Recovery Network, shares what social innovation means to him.

Social innovation is the pursuit of transformative, innovative, sustainable solutions to the world's problems.

Glad I got that out of the way. While it’s a good definition, it doesn’t fully explain what social innovation means to me.   To do that, I need to explain how my experiences have been intertwined with social innovation, and how the concept has impacted my life and my work.  From the moment I heard of the term “Social Innovation” I was obsessed with joining the “club” of social innovators, which in my mind was people who spoke at conferences, got awards, and talked on CNN about the amazing work they were doing.  I soon got my opportunity.

Warning, shameless plug ahead:  During my freshman year at Brown, I co-founded the Food Recovery Network, which works with students on college campuses to recover food from their dining halls and donate it to people in need.  The organization grew quickly, expanding to 50 colleges within two years, and we were receiving recognition for our work, from a Starr Fellowship to large foundation grants to interviews with news stations (we still never got the coveted CNN, but MSNBC wasn’t too far from it).  I was riding high at that point; I had done it.  I had created transformative, innovative, sustainable change, and therefore, in my mind, I was a Social Innovator.  I think I half-expected a club membership card to some in the mail, with the title “Ben Chesler – Social Innovator for Life”.  After a year of hard work, I handed over the operations of FRN to a team of paid staff, and returned to my “normal” life of hiking, theatre, and college classes, with the confidence of someone who had accomplished his goals in life.

I would go to conferences on social innovation, excited to talk about my past work and receive congratulations for my accomplishments.  What I experienced instead surprised me, and helped clarify what social innovation really is.  Every time I would tell people about FRN, they would say something along the lines of “That’s awesome.  So what project are you working on now?”.  What project am I working on now?  I already solved the world’s problems, why would I need to do anything else?

Here’s why:

We live in a world that is constantly changing, as well as increasingly complex and interconnected.  Problems are no longer confined to a small group of people, and they are the result of many intertwined factors.  A famine in a small province in China has implications for people across the world, from foreign tourists to American companies that import toys from factories in that province.  And by the time we have “solved” the problem of the famine (through a government subsidy of food, for example), there will be new challenges that have arisen.  And even the solutions themselves create a whole range of problems, which will need to be solved.  The world never stops, and as a result, the problems caused by the functioning of the world never stop.

That’s where social innovators come in.  Social innovation is not a side project that is separate from the rest of your life; it is a way of thinking about the world that values human rights, and is expressed through actions that solve social problems.  Every discipline has a way of viewing the world:  Economists put a monetary value on everything, and sociologists look at the interactions between people and groups of people to explain how the world works.  Social Innovators look at the world as a set of problems, and they focus on solutions to those problems, drawing on methodology and ideas from different disciplines to do so.

To do that, we need people who will stop at nothing to solve the social problems of our era - people who are not discouraged by the complexities of the challenges we face, but who are empowered to create lasting change.  People who understand that the results we are seeking will be realized in a matter of lifetimes, not months or even years.  People who recognize social problems in all aspects of their lives, and constantly think of solutions.  It is tiring, it is emotionally draining, it is exhilarating, but above all, it is rewarding.