About the topic: Social Innovation

The social, alongside the technical, was emphasized as fundamentally relevant as early as in the European Commission’s “Green Paper on Innovation” of 19951 :

“Innovation is not just an economic mechanism or a technical process. It is above all a social phenomenon. Through it, individuals and societies express their creativity, needs and desires. By its purpose, its effects or its methods, innovation is thus intimately involved in the social conditions in which it is produced.”

This statement addressed the fact that innovation has social aspects, yet there was still no emphasis on what is currently termed social innovation. The present concept found its way into the politics, economics, and science of many different countries only a few years ago, particularly having achieved some significance since 2009. Now there are public debates on the topic, and many institutions devote themselves to social innovation. Explanations of the importance of social innovation can be found in the official documents of a number of EU Member States, as well as in the EU “Flagship Initiative”, the Innovation Union2. The intensive examination of the topic on a European level has begun in the context of the “Renewed Social Agenda” of 20083, and through the preview of the future EU Innovation policy4 initiated by the Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry of the European Commission. The so-called BEPA Report5 was published in 2010, and in 2011 the Europe-wide campaign “Social Innovation Europe”6 began; in that same year, social innovation was announced for the first time as a topic of research in the European Seventh Framework Programme.

Despite the growing popularity of the topic, there is still widespread uncertainty regarding what social innovations are, how they come into being, and what can be expected from them. In addition, as the “grand challenges” become ever more urgent (challenges ranging from poverty, social exclusion, ageing societies, financialisation7, and climate change, to immigration and social conflicts), the research, teaching, and support of the practice of social innovation is becoming more and more important. The social, economic, and cultural changes of the 21st century are creating further requirements for the analysis and implementation of innovation in general – and certainly of social innovation in particular.

The need for innovative changes in social practices exists in both the public and private sectors, as well as in civil society organisations (the “third sector”). Social innovation can appear as new rules of participation and decision-making for social processes, as services that influence the social situation of particular segments of the population, and as changed behaviour patterns or improved concepts of social precaution. Yet just as technical discoveries are only counted as innovations once they have become marketable as products and processes and are disseminated, so must social innovations produce sustainable benefits to target groups.

Ideas for social development become social innovations when they are more effective than other concepts, and are thus accepted and put to use. When a social idea is used and disseminated it becomes a social innovation, having its share in the overcoming of a concrete problem, or in meeting one of society’s existing social needs, a need that may be either new or long-standing.

1 http://europa.eu/documents/comm/green_papers/pdf/com95_688_en.pdf
2 http://ec.europa.eu/research/innovation-union/index_en.cfm
3 http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?langId=de&catId=547
4 Business panel on future EU innovation policy: Reinvent Europe through innovation: From a knowledge society to an innovation society. http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/innovation/files/panel_report_en.pdf
5 Hubert, Agnès et al., 2010: Empowering people, driving change: Social innovation in the EU. BEPA (Bureau of European Policy Advisers). http://ec.europa.eu/bepa/pdf/publications_pdf/social_innovation.pdf
6 http://socialinnovationeurope.eu/

7 Cf. T. I. Palley, 2007: Financialisation. What it is and why it matters. http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_525.pdf