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Social Frontiers: does social innovation need better definition?

I am hardly the first to observe that social innovation lacks a consistent definition. As a phrase, it is plagued by two identity crises: much ambiguity persists in attempts to define ‘innovation’; and what constitutes ‘social’ – whether social outcomes, social processes, the social sector and so on – is subject to a wide variety of interpretations.

It is therefore unsurprising that the papers submitted for the Social Frontiers conference explore a plethora of different concepts subsumed under this term.[2] It's not our goal to try and come up with an all-encompassing definition or new term. But it is our ambition to develop a community of researchers, practitioners and policymakers engaged in identifying, supporting and studying social innovation with more coherence, or at least with more distinct arguments.

In that spirit, this blog looks briefly at some different ways researchers are interpreting social innovation, and offers a few reflections and challenges. Health warning: this is quite a long post.  

Firstly, we might ask why social innovation research matters at all?

As a field that's arguably led by practice, perhaps research is predominantly useful as a means of informing our practical ability to respond creatively to social challenges – in the same way we study medicine. On the other hand, social innovation still lacks theoretical clarity, and research still tends towards case by case analysis, making it difficult to empirically identify patterns of cause and effect. Of course, both cases can be right, and it's critical that communities of research and practice evolve together.

Is social innovation different from other 'types' of innovation (such as technological innovation)? Is such a distinction meaningful?  

Josef Hochgerner, innovation scholar and founder of the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna, argues that all innovations are in some way socially relevant as innovation evolves within a society and a particular 'culture of innovation'. The moon landing may have been a grand triumph of technology, but it was as much a political and social event. New technologies undoubtedly affect and are affected by society's development, and social innovations in turn can describe new practices for resolving social challenges that emerge from wider socioeconomic trends.

Or should social innovation be viewed as a response to market failures, as the innovative activity of 'non-market' actors such as governments, third sector organisations and voluntary groups who seek to rebalance adverse effects of innovation in the private sector? Or do we in fact need to see past the dominance of a market-based interpretation and see social innovation as the precedent to our understanding of technological innovation, as this fascinating paper by Benoît Godin argues?

What is the relationship between social innovation and broader notions of social change?

Rather than a specialist term of a definable area of study, social innovation can often slip into a kind of 'descriptive metaphor' for social change and the modernisation of society more broadly, as Jürgen Howaldt, Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Dortmund, has argued. Howaldt suggests that social change is driven by the repetition and imitation of novel social practices (or innovations), drawing on social theorist Gabriel Tarde.

Why is social innovation such a prominent concept now?

Jane Jenson, Professor of Political Science from the University of Montreal in Canada, argues that social innovation can be understood as a 'quasi-concept' with a variety of meanings. Indeed, Jenson suggests that it is this indeterminate quality that makes social innovation meaningful as a concept, in that it can act as a rallying point for a movement and provide a means of navigating complex and changing ideas.

International development, social cohesion and social investment she suggests are all other examples of such quasi-concepts[3].

Through this lens, social innovation is a helpful way of framing changing relationships and increasingly blurred boundaries between the state, the market, family and community in response to welfare challenges. Social enterprises that blend financial return and social impact, public services working together with citizens and communities, social movements and networks are all examples of how this 'welfare diamond' is being reshaped.  

Finally, what needs to happen next?  

We're hosting Social Frontiers to help shape this field. We know there remain lots of gaps in knowledge, and work to be done to refine and test theories. Social innovation research could do more to integrate and draw on the more established field of innovation studies, for example, which might help to illustrate distinctions in the social space.

We won't accomplish all of this with one conference, but by bringing a community of researchers together and raising the profile of this work internationally, we might go some way to establish some shared priorities for future research. 


[1] This point is observed in Nicholls and Murdock, 'The Nature of Social Innovation', in Nicholls and Murdock, ed. (2011) Social Innovation: blurring boundaries to reconfigure markets. London: Palgrave Macmillan

[2] This paper from the TEPSIE consortium provides a very helpful overview of different attempts to define social innovation (see The Young Foundation (2012) Social Innovation Overview: A deliverable of the project: "The theoretical, empirical and policy foundations for building social innovation in Europe" (TEPSIE), European Commission - 7th Framework Programme, Brussels: European Commission, DG Research).

[3] This concept is further explored in this recent Policy Review of social innovation initiatives within the European Union led by Jane Jenson and Denis Harrison.


Laura Bunt

Laura Bunt

Laura Bunt

Lead Policy Advisor, Public and Social Innovation

Laura was Nesta'’s lead policy advisor for public and social innovation until November 2013. She joined Nesta's Policy and Research team in 2009 focusing on social innovation and innov…

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