Defining social innovation

27.09.2012 Blog

Despite the growing interest in social innovation among policymakers, foundations, researchers and academic institutions around the world, there is currently no common definition of social innovation, but rather a large number of different definitions in circulation.  Some of these are very specific and exclude many examples of social innovation, while others are so broad that they describe projects and organisations that are not particularly innovative, even if they are in some way social.

This is partly because social innovation is a practice-led field – understandings, definitions and meanings have emerged through people doing things in new ways rather than thinking about them in an academic way. And since the practice of social innovation looks and feels different in different fields, sectors and continents, it is not surprising that meanings and definitions vary.

While this openness and lack of clarity may be one reason that such a broad range of organisations and sectors have felt comfortable adopting the term and engaging in the debate surrounding it, we argue that reaching a common understanding of the term is critical if the field is to mature and develop further.

A major aim of the first stage TEPSIE project research was to develop a working definition of social innovation. We wanted to arrive at a definition that resonates with both practitioners as well as researchers, and so we looked at a wide rage of existing definitions in use.  Based on our research and review of current literature and practice, we have developed the following definition:

Social innovations are new solutions (products, services, models, markets, processes etc.) that simultaneously meet a social need (more effectively than existing solutions) and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources. In other words, social innovations are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act.

To unpack this further, we developed a list of core features, a list of common characteristics and a typology.

The five core features that we think are essential if we are to describe something as a social innovation are:

  • Novelty: Social innovations are new to the field, sector, region, market or user, or to be applied in a new way
  • From ideas to implementation: Social innovation describes the implementation and application as new ideas, rather than just the development of new ideas (invention)
  • Meets a social need: Social innovations are explicitly designed to meet a recognised social need
  • Effectiveness: Social innovations are more effective than existing solutions – they create a measurable improvement in terms of outcomes
  • Enhances society’s capacity to act: Social innovations empower beneficiaries by creating new roles and relationships, developing assets and capabilities and/or better use of assets and resources

The common features we identified are not definitional – a social innovation might display few or none of the following – although it’s our hypothesis that they will display at least one of the following features:

  • Cross sectoral: Occur at the interfaces between sectors and involve actors from across sectors
  • New social relationships and capabilities: Developed ‘with’ and ‘by’ users and not delivered ‘to’ and ‘for’ them. They can be identified by the type of relationships they create with and between their beneficiaries
  • Open, collaborative and experimental: Often involve production by the masses -  large numbers of people working independently on collective projects without normal market structures and mechanisms
  • Prosumption and co-production:  Frequently include blurred boundary between producers and consumers
  • Grass-roots, bottom-up: Feature distributed systems where innovation and initiative are dispersed to the periphery and connected by networks
  • Mutualism: Based on the idea that individual and collective well-being is obtainable only by mutual dependence
  • Better use of assets and resources: Involves the recognition, exploitation and coordination of latent social assets
  • Development of capabilities and assets: Based on a participatory approach that enables beneficiaries to meet their needs over the longer term

Finally, we developed a typology of social innovation to help clarify what kinds of activities we think can be classified as social innovations:

  • New products, such as assistive technologies developed for people with disabilities e.g. voice synthesizers and Braille readers.
  • New services, such as such as mobile banking, e.g. MPesa in Kenya.
  • New processes, such as continuous improvement methods and crowdsourcing.
  • New markets, such as Fair Trade, or time banking.
  • New platforms, such as new legal or regulatory frameworks or platforms for care such as Tyze which helps older people track informal and formal care.
  • New organisational forms such as community interest companies or networks such as the Hub.
  • New business models such as social franchising, or just in time models applied to social challenges such as the Aravind Eye Care System in India which carries out 175,000 cataract surgeries and some 100,000 other eye surgeries and laser procedures every year at its five main hospitals.

Taken together, this three part definition consisting of core features, characteristics and a typology provides parameters for our research going forward, but will also hopefully prove useful to other practitioners and theorists in the field. However, social innovation is by its very nature a field that will continue to provoke debate, and rightly so. Our definition remains very much a working definition and what we have proposed here is intended to stimulate further debate rather than close down discussions. We would love to hear your thoughts, comments and suggestions. What do you think is missing in this definition? What shouldn’t be included? How can we improve our definition so that it resonates with both researchers and practitioners? 

If you would like to read the full definitions paper we developed for the TEPSIE project, it is available to download here.