“Social innovation” is the increasingly common shorthand for this approach to public-private partnerships. It differs from the fashion in the past couple of decades for contracting out the delivery of public services to businesses and non-profit groups in order to cut costs, in that it aims to do more than save a few dollars or pounds—although that is part of its attraction. The idea is to transform the way public services are provided, by tapping the ingenuity of people in the private sector, especially social entrepreneurs.
A social entrepreneur is, in essence, someone who develops an innovative answer to a social problem (for instance, a business model for helping to tackle poverty). A decade ago the term was scarcely heard; today everyone from London to Lagos wants to be one. Social-entrepreneurship conferences are invariably the best attended events for students at leading business schools.
In America and Britain governments hope that a partnership with “social entrepreneurs” can solve some of society’s most intractable problem. The Economist reports in a long article.