Barriers to Social Innovation

18.12.2014 Blog

Understanding barriers to social innovation 

By Karsten Frøhlich Hougaard, senior consultant, Danish Technological Institute

Why are we not witnessing an explosion of social innovation initiatives across Europe these days? The wicked problems are obvious: demographic challenges, youth unemployment, immigration, housing, the environment etc. At the same time, there seems to be a consensus that social innovation as a phenomenon is mostly positive and at the European level, there is a political focus on using social innovation as a tool to solve some of the wicked problems. Off course, there is not one single explanation to the “non-explosion”. A range of different barriers are hindering social innovation – barriers that differ from country to country and from challenge to challenge.

Even though social innovation barriers are very context-specific, an attempt to map and frame the various barriers can be very helpful.  If the barriers are to be overcome, understanding the nature of the barriers is the first step - not least from a policy point of view. Several studies have mapped social innovation barriers (see for example the Tepsie research project) but very few, if any, have linked the mapping to a framework. The purpose of this blog-post is to share a holistic framework for social innovation barriers based on Danish experiences.

Presentation of a barrier framework

The figure below illustrates a framework of barriers to social innovation recently published in the Danish book entitled “Sammen om velfærd: bedre løsninger med social innovation” (Hougaard & Lauritzen, 2014, pp. 66-84) (Translated title: “Co-creating welfare: better solutions with social innovation”). I developed the model with my colleague John Lauritzen based on our experiences in working to promote social innovation in Denmark – mainly in the public sector.

The tricky part of understanding barriers to social innovation is that barriers are often found on different structural levels and that the barriers are more or less formalised.  At the same time, barriers are often interlinked. With this in mind, we developed a framework in a two-axis matrix. One axis determines the degree of formality of the barrier in question. It ranges from formal barriers, which can typically be changed through active decisions, to informal barriers, which are typically more diffuse in nature and relate to issues such as personal capabilities and culture. The other axis represents the structure-agency duality, and ranges from barriers related to single individuals to barriers related to society as a whole. Both axes are to be understood as continuums.


Let’s walk through the four quadrants clockwise.

The formal barriers related to society

Starting in the upper-right quadrant, these barriers are the ones most easily addressed by policy-makers, since they can be changed through active decision-making and relate to society as a whole.
One example is legislation. In Denmark, social innovation based on time-banking is not an option as time-banking is regarded as moonlighting. As a consequence, tax-legislation suddenly turns into a formal barrier to social innovation. However, the barrier could be overcome through a formal political decision that would change this legislation. The same goes for the organisation of the public sector. In Denmark, as in most other countries, the public sector is organised in silos which are hindering social innovators in cooperating effectively with the public sector. It is also a barrier for the public sector in investing in social innovation as the gain of an innovation might not benefit the organisation that made the investment. Again, this barrier could be overcome by a formal decision changing the way the public sector is organised.

Informal barriers related to society

The formal organisation of the public sector results in an organisational culture. We are now in the lower, right quadrant. Even if the formal organisation is changed, the culture of the former organisation still prevails. Hence, the organizational culture turns into a barrier in itself affecting the whole society (or at least a large share of the social innovators and potential beneficiaries). At the same time, the barrier has a more informal character as the culture is carried on in the minds of the employees. Thus, changing informal barriers often takes a long time – sometimes a generation, if we are talking about changing the societal culture.
Another example of a barrier in this quadrant is the lack of measurement instruments.  Politicians and investors often want to make sure that new initiatives provide value for money. Thus, if social innovators cannot measure (prove) the value of the social innovations, the innovations will not be scaled or even initiated in the first place.  As a consequence, the lack of measurement instruments turn into a barrier – a barrier that cannot be changed through a formal decision but still affects the society as a whole.

Informal barriers related to the individual

Lack of trust is a good example of a barrier in the lower-left quadrant. If there is no trust amongst citizens or between citizens and the government, social innovations based on co-creation are facing hard odds. Individual motives and hidden agendas are generally hard to address through top-down decision making, since they often relate to the personalities and mind-sets of the individuals carrying out social innovations.
Risk adversity is another example. Policymakers can try to stimulate the risk adversity but in the end, taking a risk is an individual decision or a decision taken by a narrow group. Changing an informal barrier is typically a long process requiring cultural changes, paradigm shifts or change in everyday practice.

Formal barriers related to the individual

Barriers in the final, upper left quadrant can be addressed through e.g. ensuring better framework conditions, but still require an active choice by the social innovators before change can happen. One example is lack of competences. The profile of the typical social entrepreneur is a person passionate about a social cause but often with limited business competences to ensure the process from idea to prototype, scaling and systemic change. Policy makers can make sure that relevant education for social innovators is available, but it is up to the individual to acquire the skills.

Concluding remarks

The framework presented above is an attempt to systematise the barriers to social innovation; to illustrate that several barriers are interlinked and to point out the barriers that policy maker can effect through decision making on a short term and long term perspective. The framework is by no means exhaustive and we are aware that the position of a barrier in a specific quadrant can be arguably and differ from country to country. Let the discussion begin!