Social innovation

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Social innovations are new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that aim to meet social needs resulting from working conditions, education, community development, and health. These ideas are created with the goal of extending and strengthening civil society. Social innovation includes the social processes of innovation, such as open source methods and techniques and also the innovations which have a social purpose—like activism, online volunteering, microcredit, or distance learning.

Prominent innovators associated with the term include Pakistani Akhter Hameed Khan, Bangladeshi Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank which pioneered the concept of microcredit for supporting innovators in multiple developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America,[1] and also inspired programs like the Infolady Social Entrepreneurship Programme[2][3][4] of Dnet (A Social Enterprise).

Focus and application[edit]

Social Innovation has an inter-sectoral approach and is universally applicable. Social Innovations are launched by a variety of actors, including research institutions, companies and independent organizations, which tend to use their respective definitions of Social Innovation. Therefore, it is worth discussing what distinguishes it from other forms of social work or innovation.

Social Innovation focuses on the process of innovation, how innovation and change take shape (as opposed to the more traditional definition of innovation, giving priority to the internal organization of firms and their productivity). It likewise centers on new work and new forms of cooperation (business models),[5] especially on those that work towards the attainment of a sustainable society.

The Young Foundation, in order to distinguish between social and business innovation, stressed that social innovation is developed and diffused via organisations, whose primary purposes are not centred on mere profit maximisation.[6] The Bureau of European Policy Advisers more precisely defined social innovation as socially oriented in both ends and means.[7] According to these influential definitions, social innovation is characterised by: the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy seems increasingly unable to tackle; the empowerment of groups and individuals; and the willingness to change social relations. Hence, social innovation is often presented as a way to increase the quality of social services and their cost-effectiveness, offering equivalent, if not superior, outcomes despite considerable budget constraints.

Social innovation can take place within government; the for-profit sector, the nonprofit sector (also known as the third sector), or in the spaces between them. Research has focused on the types of platforms needed to facilitate such cross-sector collaborative social innovation.

Social entrepreneurship, like social enterprise, is typically in the nonprofit sector excluding both for-profit and public organizations. Both social entrepreneurship and social enterprise are important contributions to social innovation by creating social value and introducing new ways of achieving goals. Social entrepreneurship brings "new patterns and possibilities for innovation" and are willing to do things that existing organizations are not willing to do.[8]

Social innovation is often an effort of mental creativity which involves fluency and flexibility from a wide range of disciplines. The act of social innovation in a sector is mostly connected with diverse disciplines within the society. The social innovation theory of 'connected difference' emphasizes three key dimensions to social innovation.[9] First, innovations are usually new combinations or hybrids of existing elements, rather than completely new. Second, their practice involves cutting across organizational or disciplinary boundaries. Lastly, they leave behind compelling new relationships between previously separate individuals and groups.[10] Social innovation is also gaining visibility within academia.[11]

Since 2014, a subdomain of social innovation has been defined in relation to the introduction of digital technologies. The subdomain is called digital social innovation and refers to "a type of social and collaborative innovation in which innovators, users and communities collaborate using digital technologies to co-create knowledge and solutions for a wide range of social needs and at a scale and speed that was unimaginable before the rise of the Internet".[12]


Social innovation was discussed in the writings of figures such as Peter Drucker and Michael Young (founder of the Open University and dozens of other organizations) in the 1960s.[13] It also appeared in the work of French writers in the 1970s, such as Pierre Rosanvallon, Jacques Fournier, and Jacques Attali.[14] However, the themes and concepts in social innovation existed long before. Benjamin Franklin, for example, talked about small modifications within the social organization of communities[15] that could help to solve everyday problems. Many radical 19th century reformers like Robert Owen, founder of the cooperative movement, promoted innovation in the social field and all of the great sociologists including Karl Marx, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim focused attention on broader processes of social change. Other theories of innovation became prominent in the 20th century, many of which had social implications, without putting social progress at the center of the theory. Joseph Schumpeter, for example, addressed the process of innovation directly with his theory of creative destruction and his definition of entrepreneurs as people who combined existing elements in new ways to create a new product or service. Beginning in the 1980s, writers on technological change increasingly addressed how social factors affect technology diffusion.[16]

The article "Rediscovering Social Innovation" mentions how social innovations are dependent on history and the change in institutions. The article discusses the ten recent social innovations reflecting current change to include:

  • Charter Schools: Charter schools are a social innovation that provides an alternative avenue for students to continue to develop and build upon their educational foundation without many of the issues prominent in the public school system. These primary and secondary schools are publicly funded and operate independently, which allows the teachers and parents to collaboratively develop alternative teaching methods for their students as related regulations are less stringent for Charter Schools.[8][17]
  • Community-Centered Planning: This social innovation allows communities to plan and develop systems that cater solutions to their specific local needs by using their historical knowledge and other local resources.[8]
  • Emissions Trading: The Emissions Trading program was designed to address issues associated with the continuous increase in pollution. The program provides solutions such as setting a cap on the amount that certain pollutants can be emitted, and implementing a permit system to control the amount of pollution produced by each participating business. If a business needs to use more pollution than permitted, it can purchase credits from a business that has not emitted its maximum permitted amount. The goal of the Emissions Trading program is that, over time and with increased awareness, society will limit the types and the numbers of pollutants emitted to what is only necessary.[8]
  • Fair Trade: Products including coffee, sugar, and chocolate are currently being traded without high standards that result in tough conditions for farmers and a less sustainable environment. Fair trade is a movement that certifies traders to exchange with the farmers that produce these products. The idea behind this movement is that by being paid a living-wage, being able to meet social and environmental standards and promoting "environmental sustainability, the lives of these farmers will be improved.[8]
  • Habitat Conservation Plans: Habitat Conservation Plans is an effort by the US Fish and Wild Life Service and the Environmental Protection Agency to protect species and their endangerment by providing economical incentives to conserve their habitats and protect these species from endangerment.[8]
  • Individual Development Accounts: This social innovation is made to support the working poor with saving decisions that they have made to better enhance their lives. This initiative will give $2 per every $1 saved by the working poor for College tuition, purchasing a home, starting a business, and other similar and productive initiatives. This is made possible by philanthropic, government and corporate sponsors that donate to this cause.[8]
  • International Labor Standards: Labor standards differ country-to-country, with some agreeably better than others. In effort to internationally align these, the International Labor Organization, participating governments, and employees contributed to the development of standards that protect workers’ rights to freedom, equity, security, and human dignity".[8]
  • Microfinance: This social innovation is created to support those financially unable to gain access to financial services such as banking, lending, and insurance. The ultimate goal of Microfinance is to enable an escape from poverty by helping to improve the living conditions and financial viability among the impoverished program participants.[8]
  • Socially Responsible Investing: "An investment strategy that attempts to maximize both financial and social returns. Investors generally favor businesses and other organizations whose practices support environmental sustainability, human rights, and consumer protection."[8]
  • Supported Employment: Supported Employment is a social innovation geared towards helping disabled or disadvantaged workers who are un- or under-employed due to their condition obtain suitable employment. The Support Employment service provides access to job coaches, transportation, assistive technology, specialized job training, and individual tailored supervision in effort to help program participants become more competitive applicants and better prepared overall for the job market.[8]


Over the last two decades social innovation has gained significant popularity as a strategy to tackle new social risks including population ageing and its health correlates (Hubert, 2010; Mulgan et al., 2007, 2010; Murray, Caulier-Grice and Mulgan, 2010). However, as other concepts recently developed within the academic debate – among them, social capital (Ferragina, 2012) – social innovation might soon turn out to be simply another way to juxtapose the qualifier "social" to the private sector jargon, in order to avoid heated discussions on structural inequalities (Grisolia and Ferragina, 2015).[18]

In the context of ‘neoliberal austerity’, a strong call in favour of social innovation might hide the attempt to shift public attention from structural deficiencies and disparities to individual and group responsibility, following the vision: "doing more with less". In order to guarantee universal coverage and universal social rights, however, the welfare state system cannot be managed with the logic of mere cost-effectiveness alone (Grisolia and Ferragina, 2015).[18] A Universal coverage is the precondition for any well-functioning economy, not the other way around. As such, the enhancement of "politically motivated policies under the pretence of budget cuts" can be particularly dangerous in its consequences for population health (Kleinert and Horton, 2013, p. 1074). Social innovation per se might not be able to substantially tackle pressing social needs. Rather, the all-innovating and self-empowering jargon currently in vogue might disguise a dangerous inattention to structural inequalities, adversely affecting health outcomes across the board, but especially of the poorest. Among the therapies prescribed by the neoliberal orthodoxy – liberalisation, deregulation, devolution, individual or group empowerment – social innovation might soon reveal itself as a convenient buzzword, an eclectic concept to dissimulate political choices, legitimated by the doctrine of budgetary constraints.[18] The redistribution of resources "from past to present generations" – keeping constant the overall public spending – and the shift from a "transfer-based" to a "service-based" welfare state would represent a truly innovative approach to social policy, offering a credible and responsible alternative to the magic wand of social innovation.

Developments since 2000[edit]

Academic research, blogs and websites feature social innovation, along with organizations working on the boundaries of research and practical action. Topics include:

  • Innovation in public services was pioneered particularly in some Scandinavian and Asian countries. Governments are increasingly recognizing that innovation requires healthcare, schooling and democracy.[19][20]
  • Social entrepreneurship, which is the practice of creating new organizations focusing on non-market activities.[21]
  • Responsible Research and Innovation, which takes into account effects and potential impacts on the environment and society. It includes Engagement of all societal actors (researchers, industry, policymakers and civil society); Gender Equality; Science Education; Open Access; Ethics; and Governance.
  • Online volunteering, a free service launched in 2000 whereby individuals from all over the world contribute to the needs of development organizations and public institutions[22]
  • Open source innovation, in which the intellectual property involved in a product or service is made freely available.[23]
  • Complex adaptive systems, which have built-in mechanisms to help them adapt to changing circumstances.[24]
  • Collaborative approaches which involve stakeholders who are not directly responsible for some activity, such as stockholders and unions collaborating on business issue and business collaborating with government on regulatory issues.[5][25][26]
  • Innovation diffusion[27]
  • Localized influences that make some localities particularly innovative.[28]
  • Institutional or system entrepreneurship which focuses on agents who work at a broad system level in order to create the conditions which will allow innovations to have a lasting impact.[29]
  • Business, particularly in services.[30]

Institutional support[edit]

The US created an Office for Social Innovation in the White House, which is funding projects that combine public and private resources.[31] with foundations that support social innovation.[32] In 2010, the US government listed 11 investments made by its 'Social Innovation Fund', with public funding more than matched by philanthropic organizations. This fund focuses on partnerships with charities, social enterprises, and business.[31] Moreover, educational institutions are now increasingly supporting teaching and research in the area of social innovation. In addition to pioneered efforts by institutions such as the Harvard Business School's Initiative on Social Enterprise (launched 1993)[33] and Said Business School's Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship (launched 2003),[34] INSEAD[35] and other universities now offer short-term programs in Social Innovation, and a few such as Goldsmiths, University of London[36] offer Masters courses dedicated entirely to the study of theory and practice in relation to social entrepreneurship and innovation.

Public policy makers support social innovation in the UK, Australia, China and Denmark, as well.[37] The European Union’s innovation strategy[38] was the first well-funded research and development strategy to emphasize social innovation.[39]

In 2002, the South Australian government, led by Premier and Social Inclusion Minister Mike Rann, embraced a ten-year social innovation strategy with big investments and a focus on reform in areas such as homelessness, school retention, mental health and disability services.

The Common Ground[40] and Street to Home homelessness initiatives and the Australian Centre for Social Innovation[41] were established in Adelaide and many reforms trialed in South Australia have been adopted nationally throughout Australia. This initiative, headed by Monsignor David Cappo, South Australia's Social Inclusion Commissioner, was advised by 'Thinkers in Residence' Geoff Mulgan and New York social entrepreneur Rosanne Haggerty.

Role in curbing corruption[edit]

Lin and Chen, in "The Impact of Societal and Social innovation: a case-based approach" have argued that social innovation's goal is to produce actions that are "socially valuable and good for many".[42]

In governance, its main role is to enhance and maximize the trust of citizens through active involvement in society, whether in the public or private sphere.[42] Social innovation's role in curbing corruption is carried out through two main mediums. Firstly, it is institutionalized through actors (in the public and the private sectors), and secondly, it is executed with new tools available, specifically ICTs.

Public participation, governmental action and the private sector against corruption[edit]

Grassroots involvement[edit]

"Corruption cannot be tackled from the top, it has to be confronted from the grassroots"[43] according to John Githongo, a Kenyan member of Transparency International. The Stanford Social Innovation Review develops that grassroots innovations emerge through a combination of social and ethical capital. That is especially true when the system in which they lie fails to accommodate to people's needs.[44]

In the fight against corruption, individuals or groups of citizens have used their position to lead battles against corruption. An example is the case of, a crowdsourcing website relying on anonymous tips and alerts to uncover and expose corruption in Russia,[45] whether in the private or the public sector. The collective action permits a growing flow of information and offers, on a daily basis, around three promising tip-offs.[45]

Another example is the initiative Agenda Pública, a Civil Society Organisation, which is paving way for transparent governance in Brazil by relying on the education of the country's public administrators,[46] specifically in more remote and isolated rural areas. Agenda Pública trained more than 5,000 administrators in policy development and basic infrastructure, in order to promote effective parameters for transparency.[46] They do so by making sure that environmental needs and basic financial, education and overall health are met to circumvent bribing.

Women and corruption[edit]

A UNDP study conducted amongst women grassroots organization around the world demonstrated that "79% of women are better able to stand up against corruption if affiliated with a community group".[47] Another poll suggested that electing women into power in countries heavily affected by corruption should be strongly accompanied by an affiliation to a mobilized grassroots women's group. Moreover, 83% of female respondents gave preferences to organized women's leadership to pursue anti-corruption policies.[47] Innovation lies mainly in the introduction of programmes facilitating access to information as well as a governance agenda designed to augment women's engagement in participatory monitoring.

Private sector[edit]

Rich and Moberg in "Beyond Governments" claim that companies need to take the largest step against corruption and must engage in collective governance in order to include public policy and standards in their core business. It would be way to promote good practices, specifically socially responsible investing.[48]

For example, in 2006, the corporate sector fully funded and instigated the creation and development of the Business Code of Conduct for Combating Corruption in Malawi. It is considered an anti-corruption task force which works hand in hand with local groups, members of governments, civil society and the media.[49]

Governmental action[edit]

Anderson, Wu and Cho argue that good governance and its benefits can be extrapolated through effective e-governance. The simplification of administrative task and open data transparency, coupled with a clear policy on corruption can have a substantial impact.They also advocate for the strengthening of the delivery of services by the public sector.[50]

In the United Kingdom, the government introduced in 2016 the Open Government National Action Plan with one of the main aim being improved transparency. One of the main commitments is the establishment of an Anti-Corruption Innovation Hub. It is the use of social innovation to mobilize social actors and entrepreneurs against corruption. It is perceived that it will "catalyze and connect [an] innovation approach" while promoting the sharing of good practices.[51] Their plan of action has been supported by Switzerland, Indonesia, Spain, Georgia, Australia, the UAE, France and Norway.[51]

In Kosovo, Support to Anti-Corruption Efforts in Kosovo (SAEK) has been developed in order to strengthen the capacities of the Kosovo Anti-Corruption Agency (KAA). They are using innovative ICT, web2.0 and social media technologies as a way to connect the government and younger generations by utilizing the potential of new technologies as well as "giving citizens the opportunity to voice concerns, share observations online and to make these visible to the public while raising the awareness on the level and form of corruption occurring in Kosovo".[52] SAEK is considered a success as in the year it was launched, more than 1024 cases of corruption were reported (with half of them now resolved).[52]

Information and communications technology as a tool for transparency[edit]

According to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Financing for Development (part of the United Nations): "in addition to being an important technology sector in its own right, information and communication technology (ICT) is important for linking agents in the innovation system".[53]

Open data and data mining[edit]

Open data is currently arising as a corruption-fighting mechanism. Indeed, as transparency in government data increases and becomes accessible to all, there will be opportunities for better accountability as it will increase the odds of uncovering governmental misconduct (specifically in government activities, budgets and expenditures for citizens). Its applications are various, including but not restricted to: following the money, open contracting, changing incentives and enabling cross-sector collaboration.

In 2015, one of the G20 priorities was to reduce corruption and to promote good governance.[54] The Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG) developed the Anti-Corruption Open Data Principles in order to leverage open data as one of the key actions to create and foster accountability and transparency. The principles are directly derived from the International Open Data Charter, which specifies the release and use of government data to reduce the reach of corruption.[54]

Transparency International and the Web Foundation carried out a study on certain member countries of the G20 (Brazil, France, Germany, Indonesia and South Africa) to evaluate the effect of the principles on their fight against corruption.[55]

In Indonesia, for example (Corruption in Indonesia), it is estimated that corruption has cost up to IDR 31,077 trillion to the country.[55] Through public information availability, the country has tried to foster and promote its anti-corruption actions by utilizing its legal and institutional frameworks. Nonetheless, the access to datasets remains scarce while the lack of education amongst staff and citizens impedes the use of data as a tool against corruption.[55]

Data mining was a crucial tool used in the famous anti-corruption investigation of the Panama Papers by way of the initiative of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.[56] The amount of data reached was 2.6 terabytes or 11.5 billion documents.[56] The implementation of a graph database allowed for better efficiency in the research and analysis of the documents as it found hidden links between accounts and owners that would have been hard to dig up otherwise. Mar Cabra, ICIJ Data Editor, claimed that the software used made them feel like: "we [had] superpowers".[57]

Social media[edit]

Social media is amongst the newest factors that has been shown by researchers to reduce the impact of corruption.[58]

Social media platforms have created a multi-way communication which contradicts the one-way channel of traditional media. It enables individuals to share experiences in a quick and cheap manner through its platforms. It facilitates exchanges of geographically separated individuals which makes it an important tool as a dialogue platform.[58]

In many countries, cases of human rights violations and corruption have started to come out publicly. They challenge the status quo of the government holding the monopoly over information.[58]

The World Economic Forum established in 2014 that social media could be a useful tool to drive anti-corruption because of its ability to advance commentary and information provision to the population.[59] It is also useful because of its key role in investigating through collective action participation. They use the example of I Paid A Bribe, an Indian website inviting users to input their daily contact with corruption and whether they paid a bribe or not to a public servant.[59]

Mobile banking[edit]

Petty corruption can be fought by the emergence of cashless payments, and more generally in a cashless economy.

In Kenya, M-Pesa was launched to allow people to transfer money through mobile phones.[60] It is used by almost two-thirds of the population and is gaining momentum as it is opening its technology to other countries (Tanzania for example).[60]

As traffic police is seen as one of the most notorious sources of corruption,[61] M-Pesa proposed to create cashless payments on public buses to avoid the extortion of bribes.[62]

While there are currently some logistical and regulatory problems preventing it from getting traction, mobile banking is seen as a potential tool to fight petty corruption, specifically if it is accompanied by the proper framework for legislative action and good governance.

Local and regional development[edit]

Literature on social innovation in relation to territorial/regional development covers innovation in the social economy, i.e. strategies for satisfaction of human needs; and innovation in the sense of transforming and/or sustaining social relations, especially governance relations at the regional and local level. Beginning in the late 1980s, Jean-Louis Laville and Frank Moulaert researched social innovation.[63][64] In Canada CRISES[65] initiated this type of research. Another, larger project was SINGOCOM[66] a European Commission Framework 5 project, which pioneered so-called "Alternative Models for Local Innovation" (ALMOLIN). These models were further elaborated through community actions covered by KATARSIS[67] and SOCIAL POLIS.[68] More recent works focus on the societal role of the economic life in terms of innovations in social practices and social relations at the local and regional levels. Social Innovation, therefore, is increasingly seen as a process and a strategy to foster human development through solidarity, cooperation, and cultural diversity.[69][70]

The EU funded URBACT programme is designed to help cities to exchange and learn around urban policies. The URBACT methodology can be seen as a social innovation action planning approach. A typical URBACT network would have ten cities working on a specific theme such as active inclusion or regenerating disadvantaged neighbourhoods. They examine good practice and then working through a local support group use the results to inform their local action plan.[71]

The Social Innovation Europe[72] initiative, funded by the European Commission's Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry, was set up to map social innovation at a European level, by creating a directory of grass-roots examples of social innovation from across the 27 member states.

The European Commission funded the SELUSI study between 2008 - 2013 that looked at over 550 social ventures and examined how these insights can spark change and innovation at a much larger scale. It looked at business models of social ventures in five countries - UK being one of them – identifying which specific practices evolved by social ventures are particularly successful, and how and by whom – be it social enterprise, public sector body or mainstream business – they can be most effectively scaled-up.

The European Commission has launched a new initiative (project) in 2013 under FP7 funding, with the aim to build a network of incubators for social innovation across regions and countries. This network facilitates identification of 300 social innovation examples and facilitates its scaling. The network is organised in a way to identify new models for scaling of social innovations across various geographical clusters in collaboration with each other, communicating the ideas, finding the tools and funds, developing business plans and models in order to promote the new promising ideas throughout Europe.

  • A guide also exists that provides a way to promote social innovations at a local or regional level.[73]

Some noted scholars[edit]

See also[edit]


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  51. ^ a b  Missing or empty |title= (help)
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