Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Nurses leading Social innovation

Jeniffer Barr PhD RN
Central Queensland University

People grapple with ways to tackle “wicked problems”. The term “wicked problems” refers to global health issues resistant to traditional strategies. An example is poor lifestyle choices and chronic illness. The question is can nurses do more about these “wicked problems”?

With rising health care costs and decline in public spending there has been a call for innovative solutions. The growing awareness that many significant health issues are social problems, social innovation has been proposed rather than just innovative solutions (van der Have & Rubalcaba 2016). Social innovation refers to a novel solution focusing on a group rather than an individual (van der Have & Rubalcaba 2016). The solution can achieve being more efficient; more sustainable; or even more just. The solution, however must lead to social change.

Consensus for a definition of social innovation has been elusive. Clarity of what this term means is required (Bosworth et al. 2016, van der Have & Rubalcaba 2016). This creates a challenge for nurse researchers and managers who aspire to do things differently to solve these mammoth social and health issues through the application of social innovation.

Nurses will find familiarity in the sociological lens of social innovation where it is argued new ways of creating and implementing social change is through new social practices (Bosworth et al. 2016, van der Have & Rubalcaba 2016). The conceptual focus on ‘practice’ aligns well to the values of nursing. Practice for nurses is centred on the patient (end user), as is social innovation. It is the end user who will determine if the proposed novel solution is appropriate and worthy of implementing.

Social innovation researchers are calling for measurements which indicate that social innovation has occurred. Mobilising end users to be involved is one suggested metric. Bosworth et al. (2016) cautions that claiming to show that social innovation has occurred as one has mobilized the end users is a tautology as social innovation is not possible without involving the end users. What else could be used to confirm this is a social innovative project?

What researchers focus on could indicate social innovative work. Social innovation requires exploring the nature of the “problem”; considering what has already been attempted; and then determining a novel way to solve the problem. Applying a novel way could be a dilemma for nurse managers who are accountable to provide evidence based care and effective use of health funds. However, a novel way may lack evidence for applicability. Determining what is value for money and who makes this judgement is another important question to be considered (van der Have & Rubalcaba 2016).

Typically health measurements focus on outcomes of interventions, like economic savings; effectiveness; improved health status (efficacy) and risk aversion (patient safety). Whilst social innovation could still measure these concepts; it must also show social impact as one outcome measurement (van der Have & Rubalcaba 2016). The question will be how has this new solution created social change?

Social innovation tends to focus on local needs and local values (van der Have & Rubalcaba 2016). It is likely that during consultation social innovation will emerge from local strengths and opportunities available, rather than wide spread applicability (Bosworth et al. 2016). Therefore, nurse researchers will need to consider appropriate methodologies to maximise success of engaging social innovation so a local need is address. Yet, the translation of this research into practice for others beyond the local area will also be needed.

An analysis of the local context should include the views of many. Considering the local context and adapting the solution accordingly through consultation of both the end user and those who will implement the solution will be required for the success of social innovative interventions. This is necessary as the solution needs to be perceived as appropriate by the front-line staff who will implement the solution and the end-users who will receive the solution (van der Have & Rubacaba 2016).

Key principles for social innovation are:
  • New combinations of current ideas or hybrid approaches not just “new” ideas can be included;
  • A combination of disciplines moving beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries to solve problems is needed;
  • The lived experience and ideas of end users is an essential part of the process; 
  • Those at the coal face should be involved as this will enhance the acceptability and readiness to implement and receive a novel intervention; and finally
  • The intervention must have a social impact; the goal is for change.

The greatest benefit of applying social innovation is the shared contribution from both end users and researchers. Traditionally, researchers have had a paternalistic approach to “improving” things for end users, whereas social innovation is collaborative and discourages people working in silos. It is the sharing of knowledge and skills which evolves to novel approaches for resistant problems (Bosworth et al. 2016). Also, involving combinations of disciplines who may not typically work together is useful as it is more likely to create a novel way rather than another version of a traditional approach. Traditional approaches to date have been unsuccessful in addressing the “wicked problems”.

Sharing knowledge and skills with others is not a new thing for nurses who have embraced the need to work in teams. Examining complex health issues using a cross-disciplined approach to viewing and solving problems has become the mantra. Whilst the synergy of different ideas and knowledge aligns with social innovation; grappling with disciplinary turfs and gaining authentic trust so that information can be shared will be an additional challenge facing social innovative researchers working in health. However, nurses as the largest health group and the most commonly employed health care professional in all local communities are well positioned to lead the way to implementing social innovative solutions.


Bosworth G., Rizzo F., Marquardt D., Strijker D., Haartsen T. & Thuesen A.A. (2016) Identifying social innovation in European local rural development initiatives. The European Journal of Social Science Research, 29 (4), 442- 461.

Van der Have R.P. & Rubalcaba L. (2016) Social innovation research: An emerging area of innovation studies? Research Policy, 1923- 1935.

Dr Jennie Barr is Deputy Dean for Research in the School of Nursing and Midwifery and Central Queensland University, Australia. Of herself she says: 'My research focus is health and wellbeing of workforce and vulnerable populations. National health survey of Australian nurses resulted in over 6,000 respondents showing developing and poor health of the workforce (Ross and Barr). My theoretical framework of PND, delayed maternal adaptation and mechanical infant caring (2008) continues to be useful. In my role as Deputy Dean of Research I continually aim to improve research engagement. This led to the article in 2012 about researcher safety.'

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