Blue Zones of Social Innovation


Blue Zones refers to a small collection of communities worldwide where people live longer, healthier, and often happier lives than the rest. What if we used the same thinking for social innovation communities?

You might be familiar with the Blue Zones.

The Blue Zones Project has sought to understand the qualities that influence how people successfully age and thrive throughout the life course.

“The concept of “Blue Zones” grew out of the demographic work done by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain outlined the Journal of Experimental Gerontology, identifying Sardinia as the region of the world with the highest concentration of male centenarians. Pes and Poulain drew concentric blue circles on the map highlighting these villages of extreme longevity and began to refer to this area inside the circle as the “Blue Zone.” Building on that demographic work, Dan pinpointed other longevity hotspots around the world and dubbed them “Blue Zones.”

The project was originally sponsored by National Geographic and led by one of their Fellows, Dan Buettner, and a team of researchers. They found a set of 9 places scattered throughout the world where people live the longest, are among the healthiest, and also have highly fulfilling lives.

Are there similar Blue Zones for innovative environments? In particular, what about a Blue Zone for Social Innovation?

Ecosystems of Well-being

Blue Zones are a set of behavioural guides and principles enacted within a supportive ecosystem.

Blue Zones Power 9

The above diagram outlines some of the key characteristics of a Blue Zone. It’s a loose guide to the behaviours and qualities that are found among those who inhabit these different regions and seem to live longer, healthier, and often happier lives.

The model could be described as principles-focused, which makes it adaptive to a variety of circumstances. Not all are framed this way, but many are. This got me to thinking if we could identify the same kinds of principles and qualities of socially innovative communities.

What the Blue Zones provides a model for inquiry that we might apply to other things. Blue Zones are a set of behavioural guides and principles enacted within a supportive ecosystem .

What if we were to examine spaces, contexts, and environments with outcomes attached to ideas like social innovation?

What would the principles and criteria be? Some might be similar like well-being. Creative output, participation and community involvement, and environmental health are others that I’d suspect we’d find.

Social Innovation Rebooted

Social innovation and much of its foundations were set in the early 2000’s. By 2010, social innovation publications, professional networks, training programs, and incubators were flourishing and seemed to be everywhere. Now — in 2023 — much of that momentum seems to have faded.

It’s not that the core tenets of social innovation have changed much or that we have solved all of the issues that it sought to address. Many of the early leaders and voices in the social innovation field have moved on to other things and there hasn’t been many to replace them. Thought leadership networks like Social Innovation Generation in Canada ceased operating and there are few new books or widely shared articles on the topic among the networks I’m a part of.

It feels as if social innovation has lost its energy.

It’s not that social innovation has disappeared or been replaced, it’s that it seems much less coherent as a field. I suspect that might have to do with its early success in generating new ways of doing things within the social sector and business, but also in the plateau that came after that success. We’re long past the big dip in the hype cycle.

With attention spans as slender as they are, it’s easy for policy makers, funders, and the public to ‘move on’ before the real value of an innovation shows itself. This is at the crux of the hype cycle popularized by Gartner.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Which brings us to the question for social innovation: what sits at the top of the slope of enlightenment? I think the Blue Zones concept could provide an answer.

Blue Zones and Blue Oceans

Social innovation became popular partly because it provided a novel approach to addressing important societal issues. It combined lessons from business (innovation) and a business-oriented approach with an orientation toward social wellbeing and action. What distinguishes a social innovation approach from what came before was an explicit emphasis on building business cases to support programs, policies, and actions to address social needs.

This went beyond advocacy and community organizing toward finding ways to engage multiple areas of society — community groups, business leaders, philanthropic organizations, governments — together. It was, to borrow from the strategy term, a blue ocean strategy.

The Blue Zones are areas of concentration of key practices within an ecosystem. They are exemplars of health and wellbeing. By identifying, studying, and profiling these regions of the world, Dan Buettner and his team have provided guidance for people looking to live a longer, healthier lives.

Why can’t we do the same for communities and social issues, too? A concentration of socially innovative organizations, networks, and alliances that achieves positive impact is worth studying. There are small-scale examples of this that are location-based.

For example, Foundation House in Toronto is a hub for shared learning, community-building, and knowledge sharing for those working in the philanthropic and social sectors in Canada. It’s recently undertaken a design-driven project to reimagine how it can use its space (physical and virtual) to better serve its members and community. It is an ecosystem and an example of what can be done when people come together and when it’s supported through a process of inquiry.

They are design-driven, curious and innovative with a focus on addressing social needs, equity and inclusion, cooperation and collaboration, empowerment, learning, creativity, sustainability and responsible practice — all qualities of social innovation.

In an era with so much uncertainties tied to various polycrises, the benefits of creating ecosystems of learning and support are great. Understanding where social innovation is working well and the characteristics of ecosystems where it thrives might provide a way to reinvigorate interest and spur a new phase of innovation – which is something the world could use a little more of and where the oceans are still blue.

Image Credits: Great Barrier Reef Coral Reef by Tanya Putti, used under license from 123RF and Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

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