The debate on social innovation

The diversity of concepts and approaches, processes and actors, initiatives and practices, prevents a single, comprehensive definition of social innovation. Social innovation can take many forms, covering a variety of sectors and fields and, therefore, a broader perspective is critical to its understanding. Below is a selection of definitions from some of the most relevant institutional actors, academics, and practitioners engaged in supporting or studying social innovation.

SI definitions

Social innovation means an activity, that is social both as to its ends and its means and in particular an activity which relates to the development and implementation of new ideas concerning products, services, practices and models, that simultaneously meets social needs and creates new social relationships or collaborations between public, civil society or private organisations, thereby benefiting society and boosting its capacity to act.

New ideas (products, services and models) to meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. It represents new response to pressing social demands, which affect the process of social interactions. It is aimed at improving human well-being. Social innovations are innovations that are social in both their ends and their means. They are innovations that are not only good for society but also enhance individuals’ capacity to act.

Social innovation seeks new answers to social problems by identifying and delivering new services that improve the quality of life of individuals and communities, and identifying and implementing new labor-market integration processes, competencies, jobs and forms of participation as diverse elements that contribute to improving the position of individuals in the workforce. Social innovations can therefore be seen as dealing with the welfare of individuals and communities, both as consumers and producers. The elements of this welfare are linked with their quality of life and activity. Wherever social innovations appear, they always bring about new references or processes. Social innovation is distinct from economic innovation because it is not about introducing new types of production or exploiting new markets in themselves, but is about satisfying new needs not provided for by the market (even if markets intervene later) or creating new, more satisfactory ways of insertion in terms of giving people a place and a role in production.

Social innovations are new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations.

A social innovation is new combination and/or new configuration of social practices in certain areas of action or social contexts prompted by certain actors or constellations of actors in an intentional targeted manner with the goal of better satisfying or answering needs and problems than is possible on the basis of established practices. An innovation is therefore social to the extent that it, conveyed by the market or “non/without profit”, is socially accepted and diffused widely throughout society or in certain societal sub-areas, transformed depending on circumstances and ultimately institutionalized as new social practice or made routine.

Social innovation is innovation that is explicitly for the social and public good. It is innovation inspired by the desire to meet social needs which can be neglected by traditional forms of private market provision and which have often been poorly served or unresolved by services organized by the state. Social innovation can take place inside or outside of public services. It can be developed by the public, private or third sectors, or users and communities – but equally, some innovation developed by these sectors does not qualify as social innovation because it does not directly address major social challenges.