The spectrum of social innovation and its importance

Keynote to expert's presentations in the European Parliament

Section: Management including Cross-Project Activities

The Spectrum of Social Innovation and its Importance

Josef Hochgerner, Centre for Social Innovation (Vienna)


In recent years social innovation became a hyped issue in politics, business and science in various countries and world regions. Social innovation is highly visible since 2009, instigating public debates and interest among innovation experts, whilst many institutions now devote themselves to social innovation. Declarations emphasising the importance of social innovation can be found in official documents of EU Member States, as well as in the EU Flagship Initiative Innovation Union1. Intensive examination of the topic in Europe began in the context of the renewed Social Agenda of 20082, and through a preview of the future EU innovation policy3 initiated by the Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry of the European Commission. The so-called BEPA Report4 was published in 2010, a Europe-wide campaign Social Innovation Europe5 started 2011; in the same year social innovation was announced for the first time as a research topic in the European 7th Framework Programme (FP7) for Research, Technology Development and Innovation (RTDI).

Despite the growing popularity of the topic, there is still widespread uncertainty regarding what social innovations are, how they come into being, and what can be expected from them. In addition, as the ‘grand challenges’ become ever more urgent (challenges ranging from poverty, social exclusion, ageing societies, financialisation6, climate change, to migration and social conflicts), the research, teaching, and support of the practice of social innovation is becoming ever more important. The social, economic, and cultural changes of the 21st century are creating further demands for the analysis and implementation of innovation in general – and of social innovation in particular.

Needs for innovative changes rise in the public and private sectors, as well as in civil society organisations (the ‘third sector’). Social innovation may appear as new rules of participation in decision-making, as services influencing the situation of specific segments of the population, and as new patterns of behaviour. Yet, just like technical inventions (products, processes) are only considered innovations once they become commercially successful in markets, so must social innovations produce sustainable benefits to target groups in the respective parts of society. Ideas for social development become social innovations if they are more effective than other concepts, and are thus accepted and put to use. When a social idea is used and disseminated it becomes a social innovation, having its share in the overcoming of a concrete problem, or in meeting one of society’s existing social needs, a need that may be either new or long-standing.

Very briefly, social innovations are new combinations of social practices7, or – in the form of a more analytical definition: “Social innovations are new practices for resolving societal challenges, which are adopted and utilised by individuals, social groups and organisations concerned.”8




3 Business panel on future EU innovation policy: Reinvent Europe through innovation: From a knowledge society to an innovation society.

4 Hubert, Agnès et al., 2010: Empowering people, driving change: Social innovation in the EU. BEPA (Bureau of European Policy Advisers).


6 Cf. T. I. Palley, 2007: Financialisation. What it is and why it matters.

7 Along the famous lines of Schumpeter (1912), who attributed innovation to business processes as ‘new combinations of production factors’.

8 ZSI 2012. All Innovations are Socially Relevant, ZSI Discussion Paper 13, p.2:

Authors: Hochgerner (external Senior Strategic Advisor), J.


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Tags: European Parliament, social innovation

Category: Vorträge

Publication Date: 2013

Procurement: Online (download)