An enquiry into the concept of social innovation: new theoretical and policy insights from recent developments

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An enquiry into the concept of social innovation: new theoretical and policy insights from recent developmentsRelevant topic of call: • Innovation and Entrepreneurship in ContextAbstract (max. 1000)Introduction:There is general consensus on that innovation is the engine of growth and little doubt that, through innovation, entrepreneurs and businesses seek to realise opportunities for profit. By means of the compounded effect of innovations, at a macro-level, economic growth emerges from a creative destruction process. Social innovation, on the other hand, is often seen as "innovation with a social twist". In the latest years, the concept, or better the conceptualisation of social innovation, has produced a number of definitions and interpretations each with implications for social and economic development. Although a common definition of the concept hardly exists, distinctive tracts, widely used within the policy circles of the EU institutions, refer to social innovation as the development and implementation of new ideas (products, services and models) to meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words, social innovation is characterised by novelty, sustainability and social relevance in its means and effects. Adding to these, other definitions emphasise the empowerment of society, and application of democratic decision-making and inclusive participation in the design and operation of relevant ventures. Question:The theoretical implications of the definition(s) adopted are that social innovations are substantially innovations driven by social motives i.e. business-technological innovation is driven by personal gain whilst social innovation is driven by altruistic gain. A further consequence of this theoretical "ante fact" is that business-technical innovation pertain to the private sphere whilst social innovation to the social and public sphere.Is this necessarily the best way to look at and frame the concept of social innovation?The various conceptualisations of social innovation reflect different dimensions and aspects of what ‘social’ and what ‘innovation’ is considered to be. Given this, trying to frame the concept of social innovation becomes even more difficult. In this essay we are looking at the rationales behind the definitions and practices of social innovation, what social innovation means for the social and economic growth trying to distinguish between social innovations tout court and other facets of the economic and social spheres which more often than not are classified under the social innovation umbrella or plainly excluded from it. This dichotomy, even when extended to portray a continuum between technological/business and social innovation, evokes a framework which is closer to the linear model of innovation than that the non linear-systemic view of innovation. The purpose of this essay is to analyse the definitions and practices of social innovation through the lenses of the innovation systems approach and to enquire into the how the systemic approach underlies policy rationales for policy intervention. Methods:This essay is meant as a theoretical contribution to the social innovation debate and the rationale for social innovation policy. The work underpinning it is based mainly on a critical review of scholarly contributions to social innovation research and desk research complemented by discussions and interviews with scholars in the field of (social) innovation policy.Results:From the extensive literature review many facet of the concepts of social innovation are derived and discussed in the light of a systemic view. Several degrees of "sociality of innovation" are therefore extrapolated and classified according to the sphere of economic and social domain within which they reside. The (provisional) taxonomy is hereby presented in table 1The emerging taxonomy, on the one hand, reveals the elements of social innovation that contribute to a systemic rationalisation of its definition, on the other hand, it shows the complexities of relations between actors, the underlying motives and the effects of social innovation. Conclusions:With the main aim to improve our understanding of social innovation from an innovation systems perspective and positioning social innovation in the portfolio of types of innovations, we are confident that integrating the objects and the methods of analysis within a systemic framework sheds a brighter light on the rationales and motivations for social innovation, and consequently extend our understanding of policy intervention rationales.Main references:Christensen, Clayton M., Heiner Baumann, Rudy Ruggles, and Thomas M. Sadtler. "Disruptive Innovation for Social Change." Harvard Business Review 84, no. 12 (2006): 94-101.Cox D. and Rigby J. (2013) EDS. Innovation Policy Challenges for the 21st Century, Routledge, NY and London, 2013Gershuny, J. I. (1982). Social innovation: Change in the mode of provision of services. Futures, 14(6), 496-516Goldstein, J., Hazy, J. K., & Silberstang, J. (2010). A complexity science model of social innovation in social enterprise. Journal of social entrepreneurship, 1(1), 101-125.Lettice, F., & Parekh, M. (2010). The social innovation process: themes, challenges and implications for practice. International Journal of Technology Management, 51(1), 139-158Mulgan, G., Tucker, S., Ali, R., & Sanders, B. (2007). Social innovation: what it is, why it matters and how it can be accelerated.Phills, J. A., Deiglmeier, K., & Miller, D. T. (2008). Rediscovering social innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 6(4), 34-43.Pol, E., & Ville, S. (2009). Social innovation: Buzz word or enduring term?.Journal of Socio-Economics, 38(6), 878-885Pot, F., & Vaas, F. (2008). Social innovation, the new challenge for Europe.International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 57(6), 468-473.Taylor, J. B. (1970). Introducing social innovation. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 6(1), 69-77.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationhost publication
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jul 2014
EventISS Conference 2014 - Jena
Duration: 27 Jul 201430 Jul 2014


ConferenceISS Conference 2014


  • social innovation, innovation systems, innovation


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