Social innovation

Social innovation
See also

In consideration of growing social problems and the fact that resources are diminishing, policymakers are searching for new resolutions. An approach that has become popular is social innovation.

It is important to remember that social innovation is not a new concept. The first research on this term was done towards the end of the 1980s. Nevertheless, its popularity has grown recently, which is shown by the establishment of research facilities specialized in the topic. Still, there is a leading problem with the concept of social innovation. This is namely that there is nearly no transparency as to how social innovation actually is defined. A wide variety of organizations and initiatives are described as social innovations without there being a general agreement of what the term really includes. (Borzaga & Bodini, 2014)


The definition for social innovation should comply with a major criterion: it should adequately separate social innovation from other forms of innovation. Since the “Theory of Economic Development” was published by Schumpeter in 1912, a lot of literature concerned with the topic of innovation circulated. As a consequence, the definition should usefully distinguish social innovation from other types and practices and it should motivate the demand for such innovations. (Borzaga & Bodini, 2014)

  • The Bureau of European Policy Advisors (BEPA) published a fitting explanation, defining the term as “new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations”. (Borzaga & Bodini, 2014)
  • In a different approach to defining social innovation Howaldt and Schwarz (2010) propose to distinguish between “normative” and “analytic” definitions of the concept. While in normative definitions “a social innovation can be any type of innovation that contributes to addressing social needs or problems” the analytic definition draws a clear line between social and technical innovations. The former includes immaterial elements such as “social behavioural patterns, routines, practices and settings” the latter clearly refers to innovations in the production of materials. (Borzaga & Bodini, 2014)
  • Lastly, a third definition proposed by Franz, Hochgerner and Howaldt describes social innovation as “new, more effective and/or more efficient social practices with social ends and social means.” (Franz, Hochgerner, & Howaldt, 2012)

Main purpose[edit]

The main purpose of social innovation is “to develop solutions to better answer the growing social demands which are further exacerbated by the crisis.” In addition, it would challenge the classic methods the public sector and markets have answered social demands, since it facilitates engagement of the society to create social value. (Franz, Hochgerner, & Howaldt, 2012)

Three different approaches[edit]

It is possible to distinguish between three complementary concepts to social innovation.

  1. First, the social approach refers to “grassroots social innovations which respond to pressing social demands which are nor addressed by the market and are directed towards vulnerable groups in society.” (Franz, Hochgerner, & Howaldt, 2012)
  2. Secondly, societal social innovations concern societal developments aimed at society all together, which mix social and economic approaches. (Franz, Hochgerner, & Howaldt, 2012)
  3. Thirdly, systemic innovations refer to “fundamental changes in attitudes and values, strategies and policies, organisational structures and processes, delivery systems and services”. (Franz, Hochgerner, & Howaldt, 2012)

Scaling social innovations[edit]

When considering scaling social innovations, it is possible to differentiate between three modes. While certain social innovations publicize in the form of an organizational mode, which means a main structure to gather people and resources to distribute to a shared purpose, others take the form of programs. A program refers to an assortment of actions that support a specific aim. The last possible mode is a principle, which includes “general guidelines and values about how to serve a given purpose.” (Beugré, 2017)


One of the most popular and fastest to generalize social innovation is the internet. With among other things changing the way people communicate and work together the internet “has radically changed the most essential features of mankind”. While the ends of developing the internet were rather social, since the original purpose was to simplify scientific collaboration, the means were clearly technical. This, as stated by the authors, would make the internet a social innovation with technical means which would open the discussion about to what extend it is truly social and if technological, cultural and economic components are involved. (Franz, Hochgerner, & Howaldt, 2012)


The growing popularity of social innovation in politics was shown by the 2011 launch of the “Social Innovation Europe Initiative (SIE)” by the European Commission in Brussels. One purpose of this initiative is to provide an “overview and review on assessment approaches”, including “a roadmap to improve the metrics and assessments needed for policy-making as well as for performance management of social innovation”. (Franz, Hochgerner, & Howaldt, 2012)

Finally, according to the authors, it is to hope that when social innovation is developing to a broader extend, value creation will be its foundation. Another way to put it is that “social innovation will only make a difference where risk taking for the creation of social value by those most concerned becomes a respected activity.” (Franz, Hochgerner, & Howaldt, 2012)