Innovocean: Commercial vs. Social Innovation


When I grew up, I wanted to become a marine biologist or oceanographer. The fact that we still know more about the surface of Mars than we do what swims deep in our oceans makes me want to grab my snorkel and fins right now and head to the coast. What do oceans have to do with innovation?

Let’s dive deeper into the principle that the more distinctions we can make around various kinds of innovation, the more discerning we can be around which kind we should best engage right now.

If you were to do a deep-dive exploration of the Arctic Ocean, you might think you were on a different planet altogether than the one housing the Atlantic Ocean. The uniquely inhospitable and cold waters of the Arctic Ocean sport the white, floating mountains we call icebergs and other-worldly creatures like the gnarly narwhal. Contrast that frozen reality to the truly tropical waters of the Atlantic—the stuff of vacationers’ dreams—complete with rays and reefs, white-sand beaches, starfish, and sand dollars. No one would argue that the Arctic and the Atlantic are both oceans. But could there be two more different marine ecosystems? What a metaphor for innovation! Or should we say, “innovocean”?

Similarly, there’s a huge difference between COMMERCIAL innovation and SOCIAL innovation.

Commercial innovation is likely the most predominant form of innovation. It seeks to solve human problems with tangible products but is usually more economically driven due to the financial gain of a designer or manufacturer producing a product or service that consumers are willing to purchase to meet their need (i.e., Apple, GE, Samsung, LEGO, Boeing, Kraft, Unilever products). There may certainly be a social aspect to a commercial product. But, generally, commercial or product innovation is primarily geared toward economic gain—where producing something that adds value to market consumers is ultimately intended to increase value to company shareholders.

Social innovation, on the other hand, is very unique as “innovation oceans” go. Social innovations seek to solve societal problems or social challenges or needs (i.e., sanitation in the developing world, clean drinking water, youth unemployment, malaria education, vaccine discovery, urban safety, educational system effectiveness, etc.) with the primary goal of making human health better, human interaction deeper, or human relationships stronger (i.e., TOM’s shoes, Telos, LifeStraw, Willow Creek Community Church’s Celebration of Hope seed packing initiative, Open IDEO, Willow Crystal Lake family ministries, etc.) (see OPEN IDEO’s open challenges geared toward solving systemic social issues). The intrinsic value social innovation brings is in solving a fundamental human need that improves the quality of life for whole communities. While economic benefit may be a result for the designer or manufacturer, financial gain is not the primary objective. Also, according to IDEO CEO Tim Brown, social innovations tend to require greater entrepreneurial and design firepower and collaboration than commercial (product) innovation.


  1. Which “ocean” of innovation do you tend to swim in—social or commercial?
  2. If there’s such a thing as social innovation, is there such a thing as spiritual innovation?
  3. Do you agree with the implied idea that social innovation tends to be more difficult or more complex than commercial innovation? Why or why not?


  1. Dave Carhart

    One more distinction I would make is between top-down systems and collaborative or open source systems. Many of your examples of social innovation are organized in traditional structures, solving problems in more or less the same way businesses do. I took a quick look at Open IDEO and it does appear to use a more collaborative model.
    We are in the midst of a revolution in information sharing. I’m intrigued by social innovation examples that are not top-down. Kickstarter and other ‘crowd sourcing’ initiatives come to mind. What are other examples?

  2. Marcus Bieschke

    Great point and question, Dave. In future posts, we’ll definitely explore what’s known as “open” or “crowd-sourced” innovation techniques. That’s probably why IDEO calls their social wing “Open” IDEO (I actually hadn’t realized that until you mentioned it above). And I fully agree with you that social innovation will most often and most effectively happen when bottom-up approaches like that are taken.

    Our church has plans to move into this kind of technique in the near future–where we not only use larger teams to come up with social innovations but invite input from our larger congregation of thousands of people as well as those in our surrounding communities.

    I should point out that this blog itself is an attempt to get the “crowd” feeding into this stream of learning. So feel free to share this widely to get our conversation strings going!



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