WILCO seminar - Approaches to Research on Social Innovation

07.02.2013 Blog

Approaches to Research on Social Innovation: Learning from One Another for the Future

Last week, I attended a really interesting research seminar hosted by WILCO. The WILCO consortium brought together research projects on social innovation funded by the EU to explore and discuss current trends and approaches to social innovation research and identify possible future directions in order to prepare for Horizon 2020. It was an excellent opportunity to meet fellow researchers working in the field and to find out more about projects including WILCO, INNOSERV, SERVPPIN, CITYSPICE, LIPSE and PERSE.

The day started with a presentation by Jane Jenson from the Université de Montréal and Denis Harrison from the Université de Québec à Montréal, who had carried out an analysis of current and recent social innovation research projects funded by the European Commission. In all, 15 projects were analysed, even though 7 of these projects did not explicitly mention the concept of social innovation.

Jenson applied the idea of a ‘quasi-concept’ to describe social innovation. A ‘quasi-concept’ (Bernard 1999; McNeill, 2006) is according to Jenson, ‘a hybrid, making use of empirical analysis and thereby deploying scientific methods, but simultaneously having an indeterminate quality making it adaptable to a variety of situations and flexible enough to follow the twists and turns of policy’. Arguably, it is this flexibility which leaves the quasi-concept of social innovation open to criticism on theoretical, analytical and empirical grounds. But, as Jenson stressed, this does not mean that social innovation is merely a buzzword. This notion of a quasi-concept is a useful framing device and allows for and explains the myriad interpretations, definitions and approaches to social innovation across the policy and academic worlds.

A few themes and questions emerged from the discussion on trends, approaches and definitions. Is social innovation an explanatory phenomenon or is it the phenomenon that needs to be explained? Is social innovation a new concept to explain something which has been happening for a long time i.e. is it a new way of describing forms of social change? Or is it a concept to explain new phenomena, i.e. does social innovation describe a new form of social change? Is one theoretical approach more relevant than others for understanding social innovation? Who is responsible for social innovation? Are existing research methodologies adequate for capturing and understanding social innovation? Is social innovation reconceptualising innovation by focusing on the interactions and relationships between people? Others also called for the need to make a clear distinction between the empirical analysis and the normative conclusions in the analysis – of what social innovation is and what social innovation should be.

This was a lively and interesting discussion - which we very much hope to continue in coming months!