The OECD defines social innovation as “the design and implementation of new solutions that imply conceptual, process, product, or organisational change, which ultimately aim to improve the welfare and wellbeing of individuals and communities.” Based on this definition, social innovations can, normatively, be understood as innovations with positive effects on the common good. In this context, social innovations are often (implicitly) understood as a complement to technical innovations. Accordingly, social innovations represent a “repair approach” to map social needs and socially compensate for the consequences of technological innovation.
Social innovations can be distinguished from “classical” innovations on several dimensions, which can be seen below:
- Type of actors/business model: Social innovations prioritise social goals over profits and aim to reinvest any surplus made from their business activities into achieving welfare gains.
- Type of problem addressed/goal sought: This understanding of social innovation focuses on societal transformation. This transformation can be societal in nature, but also, for example, related to environmental protection (e.g., via a reference to the UN Sustainable Development Goals). Such transformational innovations also include those of a technological nature such as smartphones or social media. Identifying such innovations as “social” is complex, however, as it can either only be done in retrospect (i.e., after the transformation has taken place) or must be based on a transformation envisioned by the respective actors.
- Type of problem-solving: This distinction criterion is based on differentiating between technological and non-technological innovations. It focuses on innovative services or business models that aren’t primarily “technical” in nature.
- Solution development mode: Some funding agencies, rather than academic circles, include innovations that emerge through highly participatory processes as social innovations. Thus, this understanding overlaps with other concepts such as open innovation and citizen science.
Due to its multidimensional nature, the delimitation of social innovation can be unclear. Essentially, any technological innovation can be considered “social” when viewed in terms of its impact on society. Alternatively, if the focus is placed on promoting the common good, then any type of civic engagement could be categorised as a form of social innovation.
A myriad of actors
The landscape of actors involved in social innovation is diverse and, in part, has been studied by organisations such as Technopolis Group (for example, Social Business Initiatives) and others. It can be structured according to various dimensions:
- Societal challenges/needs to be addressed (e.g., based on the SDGs)
- Actor landscape (e.g., clubs or associations, foundations, municipal or regional administrative institutions, municipal, non-profit or even commercial companies, freelancers, craftsmen, universities, research and science institutions, or cultural and educational institutions)
- Organisational implementation (e.g., legal form, financing)
- Economic incentives (e.g., business models)
- Target groups/impact recipients
- Geographical scope
- Scaling intention
The relevance of social innovation stems from its twofold approach. First, it expands the traditional understanding of innovation activities by including non-profit actors who prioritise the common good. Second, it emphasises the societal changes that result from these innovations, underscoring the broader impact and implications for the wider community.
Measuring social innovations
Frequently, induced changes resulting from social innovations are multi-dimensional and unintentional, making them challenging to measure and evaluate. The actual realisation of the promised benefits of these innovations remains a subject of ongoing research.
Examples of attempts to measure social innovation include the project si-metrics or, conducted by Technopolis jointly with its partner ISIconsult, the accompanying research to the funding programme “Society of Ideas”, commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research.
Warnke, Philipp et al., 2016: Opening up the innovation system framework towards new actors and institutions. Fraunhofer ISI Discussion Papers Innovation Systems and Policy Analysis No. 49. Karlsruhe: Fraunhofer ISI. https://www.isi.fraunhofer.de/content/dam/isi/dokumente/cci/innovation-systems-policy-analysis/2016/discussionpaper_49_2016.pdf