Social innovation

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Originally from Wikipedia, 12 July 2009

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Social innovation refers to new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds - from working conditions and education to community development and health - and that extend and strengthen civil society.

Over the years, the term has developed several overlapping meanings. It can be used to refer to social processes of innovation, such as open source methods and techniques. Alternatively it refer to innovations which have a social purpose - like microcredit or distance learning. The concept can also be related to social entrepreneurship (entrepreneurship isn't always or even usually innovative, but it can be a means of innovation) and it also overlaps with innovation in public policy and governance. Social innovation can take place within government, within companies, or within the nonprofit or third sector), but is increasingly seen to happen most effectively in the space between the three sectors. Recent research has focused on the different types of platforms needed to facilitate such cross-sector collaborative social innovation.[1]


Social innovation was discussed in the writings of figures such as Peter Drucker and Michael Young (founder of the Open University and dozens of other organizations) in the 1960s[2]. It also appeared in the work of French writers in the 1970s, for example Pierre Rosanvallon, Jacques Fournier, and Jacques Attali[3]. However, the themes and concepts in social innovation have existed long before that. Benjamin Franklin, for example, talked about social innovation in terms of small modifications within the social organisation of communities[4] that could help to solve everyday problems. Many radical 19th century reformers like Robert Owen, founder of the co-operative movement, promoted innovation in the social field and all of the great sociologists including Karl Marx, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim focused much of their attention to broader processes of social change. However, more detailed theories of social innovation only became prominent in the 20th century. Joseph Schumpeter, for example, addressed the process of innovation more directly with his theories of creative destruction and his definition of entrepreneurs as people who combined existing elements in new ways. In the 1980s and after, writers on technological change increasingly addressed the importance of social factors in affecting technology diffusion[5].

Recent developments

The idea of social innovation has become much more prominent with ongoing research, blogs and websites (such as the social innovation exchange)[6], and a proliferation of organisations working on the boundaries of research and practical action. Several currents have converged in this area, including:

  • new thinking about innovation in public services, pioneered particularly in some of the Scandinavian and Asian countries. Governments are increasingly recognising that innovation isn't just about hardware: it is just as much about prisons and healthcare, schooling and democracy.[7, 8]
  • growing interest in social entrepreneurship.[9]
  • business, which is increasingly interested in innovation in services.[10]
  • new methods of innovation inspired by the open source field.[11]
  • linking social innovation to theory and research in complex adaptive systems to understand its dynamics.[12]
  • collaborative approaches to social innovation, particularly in the public sector.[13]

A recent overview of the field highlighted the growing interest of public policy makers in supporting social innovation in these different sectors, notably in the UK, Australia, China and Denmark.[14] A focus of much recent work has been on how innovations spread [15] and on what makes some localities particularly innovative.[16]

European Commission interest

The idea has been taken up by the European Commission, and in particular its President, Manuel Barroso. Several events have been organised on this theme, notably Powering a New Future (PANF) held in Lisbon in December 2008, and the BEPA social innovation workshop conclusions held on 19-20 January 2009.

EU Committee of Regions definition

The EU Committee of Regions held a conference on 1 may 2011 and its proceedings phrase the BEPA definition slightly differently:

Social innovation includes the development of new concepts (products, services, structures and approaches) that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social interaction. In this way, social innovation is social in both its ends and its means. This kind of innovation not only serves society but also enhances society’s capacity to act. Moreover, it often leads to an added economic value by creating new types of products and services.
Social innovation is processed in a participative way involving actors and stakeholders, who have an interest in solving a social problem, and empowering the beneficiaries. Social innovation is about finding the best way to empower citizens – especially in deprived groups – through their active involvement in the innovative process.

History of social innovation and territorial development

There is another extensive literature on social innovation in relation to territorial (or regional) development, which covers: first, innovation in the social economy, i.e. strategies for satisfaction of human needs; and second, innovation in the sense of transforming and/or sustaining social relations, especially the governance relations at the regional and local level. A combination of both the modes provides a comprehensive approach to innovation in social and economic dynamics within territories. In Europe, from the late 1980s, research on social innovation from a territorial perspective was initiated by Jean-Louis Laville[17] and Frank Moulaert[18] and has been going on since then. In Canada CRISES initiated this type of research. The first large scale research project to work on territorial innovation analysis was SINGOCOM - Social Innovation, Governance, and Community Building a European Commission Framework 5 project (2002-2004), that offered wide ranging discussions on Alternative Models for Local Innovation (ALMOLIN).

The Innovation Union

This Europe 2020 flagship project includes social innovation as follows:

The Commission will launch a European Social Innovation pilot which will provide expertise and a networked 'virtual hub' for social entrepreneurs and the public and third sectors.

  • It will promote social innovation through the European Social Fund (ESF) building on the significant investments in social innovation which the ESF has made over the last ten years, all along the innovation cycle. This will be complemented by support to innovative social experiments to be developed in the framework of the European Platform against Poverty.
  • Social innovation should become a mainstream focus in the next generation of European Social Fund programmes. Member States are encouraged to already step up efforts to promote social innovation through the ESF
  • Starting in 2011, the Commission will support a substantial research programme on public sector and social innovation, looking at issues such as measurement and evaluation, financing and other barriers to scaling up and development. As an immediate step, it will pilot a European Public Sector Innovation Scoreboard as a basis for further work to benchmark public sector innovation. It will explore with Member States whether it is appropriate to bring together new learning experiences and networks for public sector leaders at European level.


1. Nambisan, S. "Platforms for Collaboration", Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2009.

2. see for example Gavron, Dench (eds) Young at 80, Carcanet Press, London, 1995 for a comprehensive overview of one of the world's most successful social innovators

3. Chambon, J.-L, David, A. and Devevey, J.-M (1982), Les Innovations Sociales, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris

4. Mumford, M.D. (2002) Social Innovation: Ten Cases from Benjamin Franklin, Creativity Research Journal, 14(2), 253-266

5. notably in the writings of Christopher Freeman, Carlotta Perez, Ian Miles and others


7. Innovation in the Public Sector - an overview of thinking about innovation in the public sector, UK government Strategy Unit, 2003

8. Ready or Not?, Young Foundation, 2007 - about the need for public sector organisations to innovate

9. see for example Nichols, Social Entrepreneurship, Oxford University Press 2007

10. design companies article by Forbes magazine about how comanies are innovating in the way they offer services

11. Innovation in open source, article by Harvard Business School about innovation in open source

12. Westley, Zimmerman and Patton, Getting to Maybe, Toronto, Random House 2006

13. Nambisan, S. Transforming Government through Collaborative Innovation, IBM Center for the Business of Government, April 2008

14. Mulgan, Ali, Tucker, Social innovation: what it is, why it matters, how it can be accelerated, Said Business School, Oxford, 2007

15. various studies by Greg Dees and others and the study published by NESTA In and out of sync: growing social inovations, London 2007

16. Transfomers, NESTA, London, 2008

17. Laville, J.-L. (Ed.) (1994) L’économie solidaire, une perspective internationale, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris

18. Moulaert, F. and Sekia, F. (2003) Territorial Innovation Models: a Critical Survey, Regional Studies, 37(3), 289-302