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East Asia’s Role in Global Social Innovation

Author: Dangshu (Jaff) Shen and Fan Li
SIX Global Council
Published Date: 21 February 2017

Dangshu (Jaff) Shen and Fan Li from Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation have collaborated with various individuals in East Asia working on the emerging frontiers of research and innovation in the field to create a collection of practices and perspectives on social innovation from East Asian countries.

Leping Social Entrepreneur Foundation is part of SIX Global Council.

Stanford Social Innovation Review

Misfortune can be a blessing in disguise. Good luck can dwell in misfortune, but misfortune can also arise from good luck.—Lao Tzu (1)

The biggest news of 2016 would probably be the British vote to leave the European Union or Donald Trump’s election as America’s 45th president. Both events suggest that the spread of Western-style liberal democracy— alongside universal practices of free markets, free trade, and open immigration—over the past two decades has yet to become “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution,” as Francis Fukuyama anticipated in 1992. (2)

Plainly, many in the West are no longer comfortable with accepted ideologies and institutions. Yet, as Lao Tzu reminds us, moments of crisis like this are also opportunities. It is important to acknowledge that globalization has lifted hundreds of millions of people—whether in developing or developed countries—out of poverty. However, the side effect is that it has also delivered enormous benefits to the wealthy, thus generating rising inequality. In some places, the declining working class that has been left behind is turning to economic nationalism and protectionism for a quick fix.

Nevertheless, the world we are living in today is inextricably interconnected—it is impossible to go back to the past. Furthermore, issues such as climate change, energy shortages, and the aging society that people face today are increasingly complex and—political positions aside—demand new approaches to problem solving.

Social innovation—a concept that has captivated thinkers and policymakers around the world in the 21st century—offers a potential answer. As “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than present solutions,”(3) social innovation goes beyond “teaching a man to fish,” and instead (to continue the analogy) aims to reform “the entire fishing industry” from its roots, in the context of the diverse cultural and ideological circumstances that we live in today. This is true around the world, and East Asia is no exception.

Three major economies in East Asia—China, Japan, and South Korea—account for roughly 20 percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of the world’s GDP. Generations of hard work and sacrifice have made this region’s “economic miracle” a role model for many other nations. Yet China, Japan, and South Korea share many of the urgent social challenges that the rest of the world faces. These countries must deal with aging societies, urbanization, air pollution, and increasing income gaps between the wealthy and the rest of society.

But as we enter a new era of unpredictability, the question of social innovation’s potential is becoming more urgent. Can East Asia become an engine of social innovation? Can this region use social innovation to become a responsible stakeholder in a global order that promotes peace and prosperity?

Continue reading this article here


(1) Lao Tzu was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer.

(2) Frances Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York: Free Press, 1992.

(3) James A. Phills, Kriss Deiglmeier, and Dale T. Miller, “Rediscovering Social Innovation,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2008.


SSIR's Spring 2017 edition includes a special supplement examines the different ways that social innovation is evolving in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan, as a result of each country’s unique history, culture, and political-economic system.

You can read more about social innovation and social transformation in East Asia here.