The Return of Social Innovation as a Scientific Concept – by Frank Moulaert and Abid Mehmood

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Social Innovation has been receiving much media attention these days. It prominently features in contemporary policy discussions and political debates. It is often applied to explain a variety of ‘things’ ranging from actions for microfinance to healthcare provision, and from governance affairs to policy innovations. Many social movements are also seen pursuing social innovation, or at least flirting with the notion. As such it has become a flagship term for some specific bottom-up styles and models in management practice, collective action, economic activity, and social policy etc. But the question remains, Does social innovation have a scientific status? Or is it just a fashionable slogan that can be used à la carte? Two of the four editors of The International Handbook on Social Innovation investigate.

Social Innovation research: its antecedents

The International Handbook on Social Innovation explores various uses of the term in the scientific literature, especially in social sciences and humanities. Although it is hard to say for certain who was the first scholar to use social innovation as a scientific concept, it has been in use for about a century. In the last few decades, it has made its way into a diversity of fields such as management science, socio-economics, fine arts and creativity, as well as urban and regional development analysis. The contemporary revival of the term goes back to the 1960s or 1970s and has been the basis for analysis of social change, changes in life-styles, major social transformations in human development, emancipatory movements, changes in administrative practice and governance, neighbourhood and community development etc. But concomitant concepts, referring more to structural transformations of society and its social relations, had been in use earlier, especially in the ‘proto-disciplinary age’ with (as prominent examples): Emile Durkheim’s regulation of society and how change should be socially embedded and regulated; Joseph Schumpeter’s analysis of the relationship between development and different types of innovation; and Max Weber’s reflections on innovation and renovation of the social order and his concept of ‘social invention’. The influence of these forefathers’ views of innovation and social development on contemporary social innovation research and practice has been very uneven. In any case these scholars have provided enough scientific reflection to justify the fact that any attempt to disconnect social innovation from the dynamics of social change or transformation can be futile.

Social innovation: a human development ontology

The International Handbook on Social Innovation has made a significant attempt to reconstruct the trajectory of social innovation research: the social developments and collective actions as well as the theories that have inspired it, the relevant research methodologies as well as significant case studies of social innovation in various countries from the six continents. From the beginning of the editorial process, the Editors of the book and most authors have adopted the three dimensional definition of social innovation launched by Moulaert et al. in the context of the European Commission’s Poverty Three programme’s research activities in the early 1990s:

“Social innovation involves an improved satisfaction of human needs, through a transformation of social relations and a more democratic and cooperative governance system.”

According to this definition, for social innovation to be authentic it should meet these three criteria. Although this definition may sound simple and straightforward, it is path breaking with respect to innovation research as it has been practiced and applied all along the last quarter of the 20th century, and as it is still going on.

Reconstructing the genesis of the here defended social innovation concept may help to understand the impact of this rupture. The concept emerged from a criticism of the  “innovation-productivity-efficiency-economic growth-needs satisfaction” and “processual chain” as applied in mainstream economics, politics and mainstream urban and neighbourhood development analysis. This criticism started from a critical revisiting of the local and regional development logic adopted in Territorial Innovation Models (TIMs). These TIMs have integrated culture and social relationships into the black-box economic models of regional and urban economic growth, and have turned them into key factors of local economic growth and development. In the TIMs, social relations, community culture and identity are considered as instrumental to economic growth; they are the factors that foster harmony between human, economic and institutional capital and offer a fertile ground to the creativity for embedded technological innovation with economic growth and development through innovation and productivity as the only goal.

The social innovation concept we developed in reaction to this TIM model, and in response to the needs of the communities in which we carried out Action Research, overrules this view of development in TIM. Instead of putting economic growth upfront as the guide of local development, the social innovation approach posits development as its mission and finality. It does so by defining development as the emancipation of human beings within their communities. In this view of development, culture is not only instrumental to development, it is also one of its main components. Economic development through innovation and competition to promote growth is replaced by human development as a balanced mix of pursuit of human freedoms, community development, societal progress and democratically negotiated and ardently fought for regulatory systems. Social innovation therefore is both an objective, a strategy – a strategy to achieve itself, so to speak – and, a process. It therefore involves an intricate connection between pursuing human development ambitions, revitalising social relations and building ‘good’ governance. Thus the necessary symbiotic social and political character of social innovation as a process and the role of institutional dynamics.

There are at least two further aspects of social innovation research that should be observed. First there is the threat of the ‘localism trap’ and the necessity to avoid it while at the same time appreciating the cohesion potential of proximity and togetherness. Social innovation is local but a local that is scalarly embedded as in multiscalar ‘Spaces of social innovation‘.

But the really tricky issue with the social innovation approach which we defend in our Handbook is the ethical positioning. Our ethical positioning is on the one hand stationed in the camp of human rights, equity, justice, freedoms and solidarity cum cooperative governance, but on the other hand is entrusted to a bottom-up process of community mediation and socio-political struggle – for the good or the bad. It is a typical tension between utopia and reality, but also between utopia: between market and cooperative utopia; and between realities of deprivation and exclusion but also realities of solidarity and reciprocity as pillars of (already) existent social innovation. Social innovation is on the way, but seldom really there yet – this is part of the temptation to define it ‘partially’ as many contemporary approaches in management science or policy do.

Let us now go back to the questions we asked at the beginning. For the authors of this book, social innovation is not a slogan but an approach to human development, a scientific approach and a politico-ideological view. In the human development approach economic development is instrumental to socio-cultural emancipation and community building, not the other way around. The Social Innovation approach’s scientific methodology should be in tune with its conception: transdisciplinarity, involving in the research activity all those concerned; and connecting shared analysis of human condition to its improvement through social innovation. Thus the International Handbook of Social Innovation’s focus on action research, the building of knowledge alliances and the role of sociology of knowledge and social practice. The social innovation approach’s politico-ideological positioning is that of bottom-linked governance and grassroots mobilization with the purpose of transforming society and its institutions accordingly. And this politico-ideological positioning is also a topic of research, as much as a model for building a community of knowledge or a knowledge alliance for social innovation research.

The International Handbook On Social Innovation book coverFind more information about this Handbook on Elgaronline, including a link to download the Introduction for free.


Frank Moulaert profile pictureFrank Moulaert is Professor of Spatial Planning, Head of the Planning and Development Unit, and Chairman of the Leuven Research Centre on Space and Society at the Faculty of Engineering, KU Leuven. He is lead editor of The International Handbook on Social Innovation. His research covers urban and regional development, spatial planning, social science theories and methodology, but especially social innovation. 

Abid Mehmood profile pictureDr Abid Mehmood is Research Fellow at the Sustainable Places Research Institute, Cardiff University, and the co-editor of The International Handbook on Social Innovation and Planning for Climate Change. His current research is on sustainability governance and social innovation.

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