Challenges of Social Innovation in Brazil

Fábio Deboni is the Executive Manager at the Sabin Institute. He currently is a co-manager of the Social Enterprise Theme Network of GIFE (Group of Institutes, Foundations and Companies) with the ICE. Member of GIFE’s Board of Directors. Author of “Reflexões contemporâneas sobre Investimento Social Privado” (Contemporary reflections on private social investment). Contact him here:

As a subject at the intersection between the third sector, philanthropy and the emerging field of social enterprise, social innovation often encounters two key points:

  • People have never talked so much about this
  • Are we talking about the same thing?

The growing popularity of social innovation in Brazil is a reason for celebration, and it reflects a new perspective on the complexity of social and environmental challenges. It also reflects the emergence of new tools to address these issues.

The big things that social innovation offers are:

  • An expanded understanding of both social and environmental issues (and the need to seek systemic change)
  • Joint development of more appropriate tools (that are more ethical, participatory, sustainable, and human-centred) beyond those that have been available so far

A single tool, the efforts made by a single industry, and tackling only the effects of systemic problems will not be enough to pull the lever of social innovation effectively. It has to be a holistic effort.

The most commonplace articulations of social innovation are now widely known, and we now have a strong concept of what social innovation is. One of these commonplace articulations is as follows:

An innovative solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient and sustainable in comparison with the alternative existing solutions from the viewpoint of society (collectivity), and not of individuals. A social innovation can be a product, production process or technology (as well as innovation in general), but it can also be a principle, an idea, a piece of legislation, a social movement, an intervention, or some combination of these.

Stanford Social Innovation Review- Phills, Deiglmeier and Miller, 2008

This conceptual explanation has spread widely, but there remains a risk that the term ‘social innovation’ can be used to describe any practices within the socio-economic sphere. Simply labelling our organisation and projects as social innovation does not actually make us social innovators, considering the complex concepts that this topic involves.

That said, although there is a risk of social innovation becoming a fad phrase, the more frequent use of the term opens up the possibility for a more in-depth reflection on the topic.

Embedding deeper

It is wrong for organisations that have moved into the sphere of social enterprise to think that they have fully implemented a social innovation agenda. A more in-depth approach is needed.

On the one hand the availability of certain explanatory resources (see SSIR article above) helps to provide education for individuals and organisations either engaging or wanting to engage in the field.  However, these entries into social innovation should be regarded as a mere flavour of a deeper understanding of the conceptual framework that the topic involves.

Social innovation requires us to think holistically and systemically about change. Not just addressing the symptoms of socio-economic problems, but using the available tools and methods available to tackle the root causes of issues.

If the understanding of the topic is misplaced and skewed, then the resulting work and strategies of organisations and individuals is also likely to be misplaced and skewed. Language is key – if we are faced with a variety of words and concepts that take an age to untangle; we tend to seek simplifications that help us to move more conveniently – even if they may be incorrect.

A challenge that arises from this is the notion that social enterprise is the only way of implementing social innovation, and they are regarded as the same concept. This is not only a false conclusion, as it suggests that social enterprise covers and can address the variety of socio-economic challenges that social innovation attempts to address.

Social innovation in Brazil

The backdrop provided above sheds some light on one of the key challenges, limiting the success of social innovation in Brazil – conceptual confusion. There are barriers erected by language and in some cases, a failure to understand that social innovation aims to address issues at a systemic level. Furthermore, there is tension between the social innovation, social enterprise and social movements, such as community philanthropy and social justice. This makes coexistence and collaboration across these boundaries difficult and spells out the question as to why a more concrete social innovation ecosystem has not yet been designed and implemented in Brazil? Why are these different, yet interconnected fields not recognised as part of a wider ecosystem- under the umbrella term of social innovation?

Problems pile up if the right way to solve them cannot be found [1]

Social innovation is clearly facing several issues in Brazil. Conceptual, identity, tool, and ecosystem challenges are just a few to be addressed for the successful implementation of this agenda in the country.

Despite these issues, the agenda is making progress and there are positive signs on the radar. In 2014, we added social innovation to Sabin Institute’s agenda, and in 2018 it had grown to the point where it became the core part of our work.

Relevant and rich lessons have led us to join the SIX (Social Innovation Exchange) Global Council, a global social innovation network that is undoubtedly a major reference in the industry. Enhancing our knowledge and understanding of such a complex and dynamic field enables us at least to follow the global trends on the subject and fine-tune our radars, without dodging our responsibility to advance this agenda in Brazil in an attempt to tackle the various socio-economic challenges that exist here. This is obviously no easy task.

[1] Song “Samba do lado”, by Chico Science e Nação Zumbi (1996), a rock band from Recife, Brazil, that was one of the founders of a movement called “Manguebeat.” After the death of its leader – Chico Science – the band renamed as Nação Zumbi ( To listen that song: