Social Innovation: What’s all the fuzz about?

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Carmen writes on whiteboard during social innovation workshop
A SIMRA project workshop. Photo: SIMRA.

Social innovation is everywhere. A search in Google lands 1,320 million hits. Google Scholar finds 3,700,000 resources, and if we look it up in Google Trends, we’ll see that the interest has grown since 2004.

In my case, the feeling that “social innovation is all around” is, of course, enhanced because the term has been at the very core of my research for the last three years. During this time, I have been in charge of the Catalan case study in the SIMRA project, which aims to advance understanding of social innovation in marginalised rural areas across Europe. In the course of the project, I have had the chance to discuss the concept of social innovation with colleagues from many disciplines, and with a very wide range of backgrounds. I have, however, rarely tried to explain what social innovation is about to the wider public, let alone write about it in a blog post.

Chances are, many readers who are already knowledgeable with the term will disagree with my definition. If this claim seems unlikely or exaggerated, let me point you to a 2017 article that might help you understand why I say such a thing: the paper “Shaken, but not stirred: Sixty years of defining social innovation,” from researchers at the Spanish Research Council and the Universitat Politècnica de València (Edwards-Schachter and Wallace, 2017). In this article, the authors present the results of a systematic literature review of the uses of the term “social innovation” over the last half century. They found no less than 252 different definitions of social innovation. I hope this clarifies why any explanation I attempt to give about social innovation could be easily contested.

Nevertheless, I still believe that trying to explain the meaning of social innovation is worthwhile, for several reasons. The first, and most important, being my firm belief that whoever works in social innovation, whether policymaker, researcher or practitioner, is truthfully striving to find solutions to social problems. Whether we all agree on which solutions those should be, or which pathway we should follow to solve the problems our society is facing, is a completely different story. And it is also not the point of this article. My aim is simply to explain what social innovation is, and why it is important.

One of the most cited examples to showcase the importance of social innovation is the “Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation” created by the Obama Administration in 2009. The goal of this office was to improve efficiency and effectiveness of those resources allocated to advancing essential priorities such as education, health or employment, both from the public and the social sector. This office was strongly outcome-oriented. Their goal was to “Find What Works” and “Fund What works” (and stop funding what doesn’t). For them, the exact definition of what social innovation is, or is not, was not nearly as important as whether the initiative was actually delivering solutions for a social issue. If it’s working, then it should be supported, if it doesn’t, the support should stop until a better way to do it is found.

In academia, however, the approach is rarely so straightforward. Discussions on what social innovation is or isn’t are still theoretically significant. While some consider that social innovation does not and should not entail economic profit, others understand social innovation as an almost equivalent term to social entrepreneurship. Explaining each of the existing schools of thought would be very time-consuming, and I doubt it will help to clarify the meaning of social innovation. So, I will do one of the things that I’ve learnt how to do during my time in academia: I will put forward my own understanding of social innovation, and support it with citations from other researchers.

SIMRA is an H2020 project (funded by the EU), formed by a consortium of 24 partners, with the main aim of advancing knowledge of social innovation in rural areas. In order to advance in such knowledge, we first needed to agree on what we understood as “social innovation”. It took a great amount of work and long (yet interesting!) discussions until a common definition was agreed upon. Now, the SIMRA project defines social innovation as “the reconfiguring of social practices, in response to societal challenges, which seeks to enhance outcomes on societal well-being and necessarily includes the engagement of civil society actors” (Polman et al., 2017).

This definition highlights the differentiating element that “social innovation” has over plain innovation. Whereas the latter can be limited to the initiative taken by one person, a social innovation initiative involves interaction among actors, aiming to tackle problems that go beyond the individual level. For example, a small business established to sell local agricultural products would not, in principle, constitute a social innovation (even though it might have a positive impact in the community where it operates). However, if this business is established in the form of a cooperative, engaging previously disengaged groups, then under this definition we could consider it a social innovation. There is also an important difference between social innovation and other types of innovation, such as business or technological innovation. This key departure is that social innovation is equally concerned with the outcome (enhance societal wellbeing), as it is about the process (reconfiguring social practices, including the engagement of civil society).

We hardly ever hear stories about “failed” social innovations – unsurprising, as no one wants to present a failed initiative. However, it is difficult to even define what a “failed” social innovation would look like. Do we consider it a failure when it does not achieve its original objectives? Social innovation processes are hardly ever linear and collective learning and co-construction are integral parts of the process. Therefore, we should assume that almost certainly feedback loops will appear (e.g. changes in the people involved, new knowledge, contextual shifts…) that may result in changes to the original objectives. It might also happen that the motivation of stakeholders fades away, and eventually the social innovation initiative as such disappears. However, to call social innovation initiatives a failure, even under these circumstances, it can be highly misleading and might not capture the entire impact of the initiative. The process of implementation itself may catalyse changes in socio-political regimes, or improved governance, including more bottom-up participation, enhanced protection of civil rights or increased awareness around a particular societal challenge (Moulaert et al., 2013; Polman et al., 2017).

This dual understanding of social innovation honours all those initiatives that, either as a consequence of the reconfiguration process or as a consequence of their activities, have empowered people, strengthened social networks, brought better socio-political deals to the table and paved the way to alleviate poverty or improve the governance systems of our limited natural resources.

If you want to know more about these initiatives, the SIMRA project has developed a database in which anybody can consult different social innovation examples across rural settings in Europe and the Mediterranean, and that showcases the different forms that social innovation can take.

If you happen to know about an initiative that you think could be a social innovation, we invite you to complete this questionnaire, so that the SIMRA team can review it and include it (if appropriate)1, to the database.

List of references

Edwards-Schachter, Mónica, and Matthew L. Wallace. “‘Shaken, but not stirred’: Sixty years of defining social innovation.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 119 (2017): 64-79.

Moulaert, Frank, ed. The international handbook on social innovation: collective action, social learning and transdisciplinary research. Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013

Polman, N., Slee, W., Kluvánková, T., Dijkshoorn, M., Nijnik, M., Gezik, V. and Soma, K. 2017. Classification of Social Innovations for Marginalized Rural Areas. Deliverable 2.1, Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas (SIMRA). pp. 32.

1. The SIMRA team will make sure the suggested initiative constitutes a social innovation under the SIMRA definition.

Spanish and Catalan versions of this article are available through these links.