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Social innovation is commonly defined as new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. These innovations are considered both good for society and capable of enacting greater societal involvement in the provision of social services (Murray, Caulier-Griece and Mulgan, 2010, p. 3).
Social innovations are new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet the social needs of different elements which can be from working conditions and education to community development and health — they extend and strengthen 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 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, and also inspired programs such as the Infolady Social Entrepreneurship Programme of Dnet (A Social Enterprise) and Stephen Goldsmith, former Indianapolis mayor who engaged the private sector in providing many city services.
Matters of Definition
Social Innovation has an inter-sectoral approach and is universally applicable. Social Innovations are launched by a variety of actors, including research institutions, companies or independent organizations, which each tend to use their own definition of Social Innovation. Therefore, it is worth discussing the most important aspects that distinguish 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 social innovation, giving priority to the internal organization of firms serving the productivity). Social Innovation focuses on new work and new forms of cooperation (business models)., especially those that work towards 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 (Mulgan et al., 2007, p. 8). The Bureau of European Policy Advisers more precisely defined social innovation as socially oriented in both ends and means (Hubert, 2010). 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.
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. 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. Social innovation is also gaining visibility within academia.
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. It also appeared in the work of French writers in the 1970s, such as Pierre Rosanvallon, Jacques Fournier, and Jacques Attali. 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 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.
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 alternative education that can break away from issues within the public school system. Charter schools are publically funded primary and secondary schools that operate independently and do not have all the same regulations as public schools. This allows their school system, teachers and even parents to develop better and more innovative teaching methods for students.
- Community-Centered Planning: This social innovation allows for communities to plan and develop a system that caters a solution to their local needs by using their knowledge and resources.
- Emissions Trading: Due to the large pollution issue that we face in recent years, this program is designed to control pollution. Emissions trading provides a solution to this problem by setting a cap to the amount of certain pollutants that can be emitted, and uses a permit system to control the amount of pollution that each participating business can produce. If a business needs to use more pollution than permitted, then that business needs to buy credits from another business that has lowered their pollutants from what they are permitted to emit. The hope of the program is that eventually these caps would decrease, and we will limit the pollution to only what is necessary.
- 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 to help and improve the lives of these farmers, by being paid a living wage and by meeting social and environmental standards and promoting “environmental sustainability”.
- 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 the species form being endangered.
- 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.
- International Labor Standards: Each country has different labor standards, some better than others. In effort to help align internationally “the International Labor Organization, participating governments, employees, and workers have contributed in developing standards that protect the workers’ rights to freedom, equity, security, and human dignity”.
- Microfinance: This social innovation is created to support the poor that otherwise do not have access to financial services such as banking, lending and insurance. Having access to these services is important because it will give them the opportunity to be able to improve their living conditions and hopefully even get out of poverty.
- 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.” 
- Supported employment: This social innovation is geared towards helping the disabled or disadvantaged workers who otherwise may be jobless or less likely to work good jobs due to their condition. Supported employment, is a service that includes “job coaches, transportation, assistive technology, specialized job training, and individual tailored supervision” to make these individuals better prepared for good jobs, and helps them become more hirable and competitive in the job market.
Developments since 2000
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.
- Social entrepreneurship, which is the practice of creating new organizations focusing on non- market activities.
- Business, particularly in services.
- 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
- Open source innovation, in which the intellectual property involved in a produce or service is made freely available.
- Complex adaptive systems, which have built-in mechanisms to help them adapt to changing circumstances.
- 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.
- Innovation diffusion
- Localized influences that make some localities particularly innovative.
- 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.
The US created an Office for Social Innovation in the White House, which is funding projects that combine public and private resources. Foundations support social innovation. The European Union’s innovation strategy was the first well-funded research and development strategy to emphasize social innovation.
Public policy makers support social innovation in these different sectors, notably in the UK, Australia, China and Denmark. 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 in different approaches to tackling homelessness, school retention, mental health and disability services reforms.
The Common Ground and Street to Home homelessness initiatives and the Australian Centre for Social Innovation were established in Adelaide and many of the reforms trialled in South Australia have been adopted nationally around 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.
In 2010, the US government listed 11 investments made by its 'Social Innovation Fund', with public funding more than matched by philanthropic organizations. The fund focuses on partnerships with charities, social enterprises, and business. Moreover, educational institutions are now increasingly supporting teaching and research in the area of social innovation. Along with pioneering centres such as Harvard Business School's Initiative on Social Enterprise (launched 1993)  and Said Business School's Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship (launched 2003), several universities such as INSEAD  now offer short-term programmes in the field while a handful of institutions such as Goldsmiths, University of London  are offering masters courses dedicated entirely to the study of theory and practice in relation to social entrepreneurship and innovation.
Local and Regional development
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. In Canada CRISES initiated this type of research. Another, larger project was SINGOCOM 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 and SOCIAL POLIS. 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.
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.
The Social Innovation Europe 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 has funded a 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 – BENISI Project – 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.
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).
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 health care system cannot be managed with the logic of mere cost-effectiveness alone (Grisolia and Ferragina, 2015). A healthy population 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 (Grisolia and Ferragina, 2015). 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.
Some noted scholars
- civil society
- post fordism
- social capital
- social entrepreneurship
- Online volunteering
- Ferragina, E. (2012) "Social Capital in Europe".
- Grisolia F. and Ferragina, E. (2015) "Social Innovation on the Rise: yet another buzzword in a time of austerity1?", Salute e Società 1 (2015), 169-179.
- Hubert A. (ed.) (2010). Empowering People, Driving Change: Social Innovation in the European Union. Brussels: BEPA – Bureau of European Policy Advisers.
- Kleinert S., Horton R. (2013). Health in Europe – Successes, Failures, and New Challenges. The Lancet, 381: 1073-1074.
- Mulgan G., Tucker S., Rushanara A., Sanders B. (2007). Social Innovation. What it is, why it matters and how it can be accelerated. London: The Young Foundation.
- Murray R., Caulier-Grice J., Mulgan G. (2010). The Open Book of Social Innovation. London: The Young Foundation and Nesta.
- Grisolia, Francesco and Ferragina, Emanuele. (2015), "Social Innovation on the Rise: yet another buzzword in a time of austerity?" (Salute e societa', Vol. 1(2015), pp. 169-179).
- Foreign, Mail (2012-11-02). "Info Ladies bringing the internet by bike to the remote villages of Bangladesh | Mail Online". Dailymail.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- "Internet rolls into Bangladesh villages on a bike". Asafeworldforwomen.org. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- "Info Ladies – Riding Internet into Rural Bangladesh!". Amader Kotha. 2012-11-08. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- "Let's hear those ideas". The Economist. August 12, 2010. Retrieved December 2010.
- Goldsmith, Stephen (March 2010). The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good. Jossey-Bass. ISBN 978-0-470-57684-7.
- Klievink, B., & Janssen, M. (2014). "Developing multi-layer information infrastructures: advancing social innovation through public-private governance" "Information Systems Management" 31:240–249
- James A. Phills Jr., Kriss Deiglmeier, & Dale T. Miller "Rediscovering Social Innovation", Stanford Social Innovation Review Fall 2008.
- Mulgan. Geoff. "Social Innovation: What it is, why it matters and how it can be accelerated: Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, University of Oxford"
- Nambisan, S. "Platforms for Collaboration", Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2009.
- Howaldt, J./ Schwarz, M. "Social Innovation: Concepts, research fields and international trends", IMO international monitoring, 2010.
- see for example Gavron, Dench e ds Young at 80, Carcanet Press, London, 1995 for a comprehensive overview of one of the world's most successful social innovators
- Chambon, J.-L, David, A. and Devevey, J.-M (1982), Les Innovations Sociales, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris
- "Mumford, M.D. (2002) Social Innovation: Ten Cases from Benjamin Franklin, ''Creativity Research Journal'', 14(2), 253-266". Leaonline.com. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- notably in the writings of Christopher Freeman, Carlotta Perez, Ian Miles and others
- "Charter School." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. Feb. 2015.
- Innovation in the Public Sector an overview of thinking about innovation in the public sector, published by the UK government's Strategy Unit in 2003
- Ready or Not? published by The Young Foundation in 2007 about the need for public sector organizations to innovate
- Nichols; Social Entrepreneurship, Oxford University Press 2007
- design companies article by Forbes magazine about how companies are innovating in the way they offer services
- Online Volunteering service
- Innovation in open source article by harvard business school about innovation in open source
- Westley,Zimmerman and Patton; Getting to Maybe;Toronto, Random House 2006
- Nambisan, S. "Transforming Government through Collaborative Innovation", IBM Center for the Business of Government, April 2008
- James A. Phills Jr., Kriss Deiglmeier, & Dale T. Miller "Rediscovering Social Innovation", Stanford Social Innovation Review Fall 2008.
- various studies by Greg Dees and others and the study published by NESTA In and out of sync: growing social innovations, London 2007
- Transfomers published by NESTA, London, 2008
- Westley et al.2013 A Theory of Transformational agency in Linked Social Ecological Systems, Ecology and Society
- Kohli, J. and Geoff Mulgan (2007) Capital Ideas. How to Generate Innovation in the Public Sector. The Young Foundation and Center for American Progress
- "Home page - Innovation Union - European Commission". Ec.europa.eu. 2014-05-13. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- Murray, R., Caulier- Grice and Geoff Mulgan (2010) The Open Book of Social Innovation. The Young Foundation and NESTA
- Mulgan, Ali, Tucker; Social innovation: what it is, why it matters, how it can be accelerated, published by Said Business School, Oxford, 2007
- "The Social Enterprise Initiative at Harvard Business School". Hbs.edu. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- "The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Said Business School, University of Oxford". Sbs.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- "INSEAD Social Entrepreneurship Programme". Insead.edu. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- "The Goldsmiths MA Programme in Social Entrepreneurship, University of London". Gold.ac.uk. 2014-04-16. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- Laville, J.-L. (Ed.) (1994) L’économie solidaire, une perspective internationale, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris
- "Moulaert, F. and Sekia, F. (2003) Territorial Innovation Models: a Critical Survey, ''Regional Studies'', 37(3), 289-302". Taylorandfrancis.metapress.com. 1970-01-01. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- CRISES[dead link]
- Social Innovation, Governance, and Community Building (2002–2004)
- "KATARSIS Homepage". Katarsis.ncl.ac.uk. 2009-10-07. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- "Social Polis". Socialpolis.eu. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- MacCallum, D., Moulaert, F., Hillier, J. and S. Vicari (Eds) (2009) Social Innovation and Territorial Development. Ashgate, Aldershot. ISBN 978-0-7546-7233-3
- Masselin, Matthieu. "''Is Social Innovation the Future of Economy?'', ParisTech Review, Dec. 2011". Paristechreview.com. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- "Home | Social Innovation Europe". Socialinnovationeurope.eu. 2014-05-15. Retrieved 2014-05-22.
- The Guide to Social Innovation. Belgium: European Commission, 2013 http://s3platform.jrc.ec.europa.eu/documents/10157/47822/Guide%20to%20Social%20Innovation.pdf