By Chris Cannon


Innovation is usually considered through the lens of technological breakthroughs, particularly the ones that deliver a sustainable Return on Investment (ROI). But we are getting better at intertwining technological advancements with social betterment, where the focus on financial returns is augmented by a type of social ROI – investments that pay off in resilient, empowered communities.


Community innovation brings together financial ROI and social ROI to empower strong, resilient communities.


History is rich with community innovations triggered by the search for a social ROI. Agricultural cooperatives began as support systems to provide economic resilience and communal strength to small-scale farmers. Social housing projects played a pivotal role in elevating living standards and crafting neighborhoods that reflected the needs of the community. Local credit unions brought financial lifelines for those underserved by traditional banking, igniting local economic growth and bolstering community development.

Today, collective buying groups like CBUSA leverage the group power of independent contractors to achieve not only financial ROI for their companies, but the social ROI of a supportive community with whom they can share resources and build connections. Too often businesses have to distinguish between financial ROI and social ROI as competing rather than complementary, but business models that embrace the social return of community investment are best positioned the reap the rewards of both.

Too often businesses have to distinguish between financial ROI and social ROI as competing rather than complementary, but business models that embrace the social return of community investment are best positioned the reap the rewards of… Click To Tweet


Bringing Us Together

As the high-tech age has brought innovation to our fingertips, communities have discovered new ways of connecting and building with digital resources previous generations couldn’t have imagined – not just harnessing technological advancements, but addressing real-world challenges to foster communal growth and engagement. Here’s just a few examples to give you an idea of the limitless possibilities of community-minded innovation.

  • – Kiva is an online microfinancing platform connecting lenders to entrepreneurs across the globe. They’ve successfully created a community-centric approach to microfinancing, enabling small business growth and economic development in underserved communities.
  • Nextdoor – Nextdoor is a social networking service for neighborhoods designed to facilitate local communication, help find lost pets, organize neighborhood events, and more.
  • Detroit Soup – Detroit Soup is a microgranting dinner celebrating creative projects in Detroit. People pay a small fee to attend dinners where local entrepreneurs pitch their ideas, and the audience votes on which project to fund, fostering community involvement in local development.
  • Farm From a Box – A clean-tech solution that gives communities the tools required to start a small, sustainable farm, with everything from seeds to solar panels, aimed at boosting local food production and sustainability.
  • The Empowerment Plan – A community-based approach to tackle homelessness, the Empowerment Plan hires unhoused people to manufacture sleeping bag coats for their community, seeking to break the cycles that keep people on the street.
  • Barefoot College Solar Mamas – An initiative by Barefoot College that trains women in rural communities worldwide to become solar engineers, enabling them to bring sustainable energy solutions to their communities.
  • Parkrun – Parkrun organizes free, weekly, community-led runs in parks around the world, promoting health and wellness and fosters a sense of community spirit and engagement.

Understanding Community Needs

The key to crafting solutions that truly resonate lies in a deep understanding of the community’s unique challenges. An engaged approach shifts the focus from innovating for communities to innovating with them, ensuring that the solutions developed are embraced – and built upon – by those they are meant to serve.

There are numerous ways to gather insights from a community. Digital platforms have revolutionized how we gather feedback, allowing for wider reach and ensuring diverse community voices are heard. Platforms like SurveyMonkey and Google Forms facilitate online surveys, while physical feedback methods, such as paper surveys distributed at local community centers, maintain inclusivity for those without digital access.

Interactive sessions are critical for involving community members in the innovation process, allowing them to share their concerns, ideas, and feedback directly. Apps like Eventbrite and Meetup are effective for organizing participatory design sessions and town hall meetings, and tools like Slido can add live polling and real-time feedback tools to boost engagement and make community members feel invested in the project.

Participatory design workshops, guided by resources like IDEO’s Design Kit, invite community members to actively co-create solutions and help gather diverse perspectives, contributing to a sense of ownership and empowerment. For remote collaboration, tools like Miro or Trello can facilitate broader participation and idea sharing.

Structured approaches to gathering and analyzing subjective material are vital for turning qualitative research into quantitative data. Tools like NVivo can be handy for documenting field research, and research templates can help you capture the nuanced aspects of community life and translate them into actionable insights.

Integrating Community Challenges into Your Solutions

Crafting effective solutions begins with an understanding of the underlying issues plaguing a community, getting to the heart of social, economic, and environmental challenges. Whether it’s addressing lack of access to clean water, educational disparities, or unemployment, each solution must stem from a nuanced appreciation of the core issues that resonate with that specific group of people.

A solution shaped by a wide spectrum of perspectives is inherently more robust and equitable. This means actively including voices from all corners of the community, especially those that are typically marginalized or overlooked. By ensuring that diverse groups are represented in the innovation process, solutions can address a broader range of needs and challenges, making them more comprehensive and beneficial to the entire community.

Building trust within the community is as crucial as the solution itself, something you foster through transparency. Openly sharing the goals, methods, and expected outcomes of an innovation project helps demystify the process, encouraging community members to engage and contribute.

Integrating community challenges into innovation is not just a process of problem-solving; it’s an exercise in empathy, cultural understanding, and building trust.

A Technological Crossroads for Community Innovation

For the past thirty years, we have been navigating a technological crossroads with the growth of digital tools available to the masses, giving individuals the power to define ROI according to a broader range of needs. And now, like for most things, artificial intelligence will be an even greater game-changer. Imagine A.I. systems that can foresee coming challenges, adjust to community needs in real time, and actively engage in finding solutions.

A.I. could analyze community health data to tailor public health initiatives, or use traffic and mobility patterns to optimize public transportation. It could help communities monitor and respond to local ecological changes, promoting sustainable living practices tailored to each locale’s unique environment.

The future of community-centric innovation is not just about embedding A.I. into community services; it’s about A.I. becoming a part of the community’s very fabric, understanding its nuances and evolving alongside it. This symbiotic relationship between A.I. and communities promises not only technological advancement but also a deeper understanding and responsiveness to human needs.

As innovators and technologists, the challenge is to envision and create A.I. solutions that resonate with and empower communities – a shift from viewing A.I. as an external tool to seeing it as a digital entity that learns from and grows with the community.


Lessons Learned

  • Financial ROI and social ROI are complementary, not competitive.
  • Innovation for the community requires participation from the community.
  • Artificial intelligence will soon be considered part of the community rather than just a tool we use.

Special thanks to Kenny Nguyen for reviewing and giving feedback on this post.

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