You are here

The Historical Trajectory of Social Innovation

The second plenary speaker in this session at Challenge Social Innovation 2011 is Frank Moulaert. He begins by suggesting that much of the interdisciplinary work on social innovation has not been properly recognised, or has even been gently censored. But why is this the case?

We must work towards a shared analytical framework, but this can only happen through an open and wide-ranging discussion of where social innovation research should be going. Research on social innovation goes back to the early days of social science (Weber, Durkheim, Schumpeter, …); such work was synthesised in France (and in French) during the 1970s and 80s, but does not seem to have crossed over into anglophone research. Only at the end of the 1980s, international social science renewed its interest in social innovation – but international work, especially by the Young Foundation, takes too much of a business- and enterprise-oriented approach to the study of social innovation.

During the 90s, projects in Europe moved from integrated area development through urban restructuring and social polarisation in cities to a focus on social innovation and governance in local communities; this has developed into a focus on cities and social cohesion. A key concept in such research is the neighbourhood.

But what is social innovation? It serves as a kind of federating concept for a variety of practices (by charities, social enterprises, and others), but it should be combined with scientific approaches, capable of reconstructing the logic and context of social innovation initiatives and processes. A variety of generic definitions of social innovation exist (social innovation as improving social processes and relationships), but a somewhat sharper definition would also point to its path-dependency and context, and in highlighting its drive towards greater social inclusion would also note its explicit ethics of social justice.

Further, transformative pressures in society accelerate social innovation: social innovation occurs especially during crisis situations. Social innovation satisfies basic needs; it provides innovation in social relations, embedded in space and place; and from this also arises the socio-political and governance dimension of social innovation. It is important, then, to distinguish between social innovation as it is socially produced in practice, and as it is desired in theory.

This work, then, must draw on a variety of disciplines, and address a range of questions: the purpose of the social innovation; the transformation of social relations, organisational aspects, and governance relations; the role of special agencies; and the specific context of place and space. Policy making which results from this should either be socially innovative in its own right, or act as a catalyst for social innovation elsewhere.

Social science plays a role in this: what’s important is that interdisciplinary research is done, within the social sciences, on social innovation; such research must pursue a better integration of social, organisational, and technological innovation, and must take place through social innovation – partnerships in research teams must change, by embracing participatory and collaborative methods of research.

Further, the benefits of social innovation must be spread throughout Europe. There is increasing discontent about some of the emblematic ‘innovations’ in Europe over the last couple of decades – such as decentralisation, individualisation, securitisation, and the technologisation of policy. Social innovation must address this.