Social innovation (SI), in academia and praxis, has been subject to multiple and contested orientations. The concept’s roots can be traced back to define democratic revolutions, social reforms, and movements (Chalmers, 2012; Marques et al., 2018) like Robert Owen’s community experiments and cooperative movement (Sinclair & Baglioni, 2014). Some references to SI go back to the French revolution where social reforms were associated with the concept (Godin, 2012). The foray of SI into academia is, however, recent (Cajaiba-Santana, 2014). Ayob et al. (2016) unpacked its dynamic evolution from its sociological origins focusing on shifts in social relations, to being tossed within scholarship exploring technological changes, and more recently into Business and Management as a mean towards generating social impact. Onwards of the 1990s, the concept has seen increasing prominence in policymaking discourses (Chalmers, 2012; Moulaert et al., 2013). Hence, SI as a concept, can hardly be attributed to any specific field or discipline, making the term profoundly malleable. This malleability presents several risks in the form of appropriation via “particular political and cultural presuppositions” being “folded unproblematically into ‘business as usual’, strengthening the hegemonic capacity of capitalism” (Teasdale et al., 2020, p. 433), thereby allowing SI to be used for fostering heterogeneous agendas that have little to do with common good (Moulaert & MacCallum, 2019). The novel contribution of this paper is a critical discussion of the risks associated with mainstream sectors’ appropriative usage of the concept of SI towards fostering agendas that risk deviating it away from the creation of any common good. More specifically, the public sector can be guilty of passing on non-novel and/or neoliberal policy as SI. For-profit private sector ventures can commodify and profit off marginalised communities in the name of SI. The third sector also cannot be uncritically accepted as a diffusor of SI.

To discuss these problems, we structure the paper as follows: First, we describe what we mean by appropriation, offering a conceptual understanding of the concept and presenting how we use it; second, the methodology for the systematic literature review process is presented, underpinning the conceptual contribution of this paper; third, we establish what makes SI distinct from other mainstream innovations, in particular its focus on addressing the social needs of marginalised communities, especially needs “neglected or exacerbated by the state/market apparatus”, via mobilising their social relationships and empowering them (Moulaert & MacCallum, 2019, p. 22); fourth, we evaluate how these distinguishing tenets of SI can be eroded by public, private, and third sector appropriation; fifth, we present SI discourses’ current trajectory in academia to identify which school of thought based on Montgomery’s (2016) typology is gaining momentum: The technocratic school whose views aid furthering existing hierarchies, which in our view is guilty of appropriating SI, or the democratic views, that promote dilution of power structures in favour of the marginalised, which truly represents SI. We identify that alongside the democratic, the technocratic side has gained prominence in literature, warranting some critical concerns. Lastly, in the discussion, we weigh the pros and cons of the various sectoral engagement with SI to suggest why the third sector’s sub-section comprising bottom-up community-oriented initiatives, has an edge over the others in upholding the democratic side of SI.

Our concerns emerge upon witnessing abundant resources and policy being driven towards SI across Europe, including the UK, notably The European Green Deal by the European Commission (SIMRA, 2020), SI funding by the UK government (Roy et al., 2017) and funders (see NESTA, 2021), and multiplying SI research centres in UK universities; yet, third sector organisations (TSO) struggle to access finance (Pape et al., 2020). We must pay attention to what is claimed as SI since this labelling determines who wins and loses in this process. It is incumbent on academic research to highlight such concerns. Hence, we present why we think there is more merit in advancing a democratic view of SI over technocratic ones. This way our discussion cuts across diverse stakeholders: it calls upon scholars to problematise SI policy discourses, and advance critical discussions on injecting market logics into SI; it aims to invoke practitioners, be it for-profits, charities, or social enterprises, and policymakers into rethinking the purpose, process, and outcome of their SI interventions.

What we Mean by Appropriation

To appreciate the conceptual contribution of this paper we must first explain what we mean with the term appropriation. The term, apparently, lacks a strong theoretical foundation but is used with varying degree of normativity in academia. Within socio-cultural studies, Rogoff (2008, p. 66) defines appropriation as dynamic and active processes of acquiring or engaging with “concepts, memories, knowledge, skills” to fit the owner’s purpose. Within Marxist tradition, appropriation refers to the utilisation of an object by a human to connect with nature; it is a transformative process of realising a new object by an entity where the appropriated object is “naturalized” or “embedded” within the appropriating entity’s sensibilities (Delaney et al., 2008, p. 13). Most views on appropriation can be stripped down to this aspect of transforming an object to serve the utility of the appropriator. Within innovation literature, appropriation refers to the innovator’s control over profit (Ahuja et al., 2013); social movement literature refers to appropriation as the adoption of elements like selection of certain repertoire for contestation (Crossley, 2002). Within such views, a host of scholarship equates appropriation with exploitation. Appropriation can mean “the intentional reinterpretation of ideas across cultural, spatial and temporal contexts aimed at definitional power” (Großklaus, 2015, p. 1254). Thus, in cultural and media studies appropriation relates to the exploitative “use of a culture’s symbols, artifacts, genres, rituals, or technologies” by another usually dominant culture (Rogers, 2006, p. 474), without “permission, and/or compensation” resulting in the “commodifications of marginalized and/or colonized cultures” (p. 477).

The bottom-line is that appropriation means laying claim over a material (like place, artefacts, profit) or abstract (labour surplus value, symbols, concept) object to accrue benefits to the appropriator. It ranges from benign adoption to exploitative usage. SI literature applied the term limitedly and colloquially (see Moulaert et al., 2013) to refer to efforts that contradicts SI’s “values of solidarity, reciprocity and association” (Moulaert & MacCallum, 2019, p. 17). We combine these positions to mean appropriation as the reinterpretation or exploitation of the SI concept by distorting its “social” component to serve the appropriator’s agenda (be it the public, private or the third sector) in ways that take the concept away from the pursuit of common good. This interpretation is applied as a conceptual lens in our study.


This paper is an outcome of a research project on mapping social innovation needs in a European city. Within this project, we conducted a systematic literature review to identify the broad thrust of SI and its use in various contexts. The article review and selection process, detailed in Fig. 1, followed the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses guide (PRISMA, 2021). Existing systematic reviews and bibliometric analyses of SI guided the inclusion and exclusion criteria (Ayob et al., 2016; Edwards-Schachter & Wallace, 2017; van der Have & Rubalcaba, 2016; Voorberg et al., 2015). Upon screening 2000 records from 1989 to 2021 retrieved from the SCOPUS database, 96 articles were selected and coded along predefined themes on SI’s common facets drawn from literature (Lehtola & Ståhle, 2014; Loogma et al., 2013; Neumeier, 2012, 2017; Pellicer-Sifres et al., 2017): emergence, process, outcome, elements (social relations, power relations, knowledge-sharing), actors, facilitators, and context. Multiple inductive codes emerged concurrently, especially around SI’s conceptual contest and criticisms surrounding SI’s (mis)application: Definitional contest, concept’s normativity, meaning of “social” and “innovation”, SI against other innovations, agenda-driven use: marketisation of social impact; promoting neoliberalism, among others. During the analysis, Montgomery’s (2016) typology of the two major schools of thought in SI, the democratic and the technocratic, became increasingly apparent. This led us also to a process of categorising the articles according to this typology, allowing to identify the prevalence of each view within current SI debate. A third category “mixed/other” was used for records that either have components of both the stances or fit neither. Our inductive findings then resulted in the concept of this paper.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Systematic literature review process

Is Social Innovation a Separate Innovation Class?

Social innovation clearly belongs to the wider area of innovation. “Innovation” itself often remains difficult to define, but we can preliminarily understand it as “the multi‐stage process whereby organisations transform ideas into new/improved products, service or processes, in order to advance, compete and differentiate themselves successfully in their marketplace” (Baregheh et al., 2009, p. 1334). Among other definitions, Grimm et al. (2013) define SI as “new products and services that address social needs, that is, products and services which help to build more sustainable, cohesive and inclusive societies” (Grimm et al., 2013, p. 438). These needs are generally ignored or worsened by market mechanisms (Harazin & Kósi, 2013). In these definitions, while the component of new products and services are present i.e. something “new” is created from innovation processes, the end goal is substantially different: marketisation of the “new” in the former; building better societies with the “new” in the latter. To flesh out such differences between SI and other innovations, we compared existing scholarship from the systematically selected articles and identified three positions.

A first position entails not treating SI as a distinct innovation group; instead, SI should be studied using similar vocabulary to other innovations. Here, the “social” is seen as an inadequate adjective to reasonably distinguish SI from other innovations. The argument is that other innovations also are anchored in a social context (Witkamp et al., 2011), result from a social process and can yield social benefits—for example, spill-over societal benefits of information technology (van der Have & Rubalcaba, 2016). Even the European Commission grouped SI with mainstream innovations in its Europe 2020 strategy (Sabato et al., 2017). One of the most cited papers on SI by Pol and Ville (2009) establishes a subgroup called “bifocal innovations”–where business and social innovation intersect, for example, the internet with its exponential positive externality. Hence, proponents of this view suggest SI should be reconceptualised as a “new paradigm for innovation management” (Degelsegger & Kesselring, 2012, p. 70) instead of being studied as a separate innovation type.

A second position promotes a middle-ground through identifying points of overlap and departure between SI and other innovations. For Lehtola and Ståhle (2014), the core tenets of most innovations are similar, especially innovation “as activity” and a component of change (p. 167). Therefore, all innovations are disruptive, involve multiple and diverse stakeholders, and concern varying spatial contexts. However, it is emphasised that this change component is social instead of economic for SI. Amidst overlap in the fundamental processual dimension, SI is separated from other innovations based on innovation’s initial conditions and outcomes (Lehtola & Ståhle, 2014). Bund et al. (2015) conform by adding that while there are overlaps, SI is distinct from traditional innovation in its focus on social aspects. SI process can leverage technological advancements (Angelidou & Psaltoglou, 2017; Ashta et al., 2014), and technological innovations can result from socially innovative processes (Loogma et al., 2013). SI has also been considered as an extension of corporate social responsibility (CSR) (Altuna et al., 2015) or pitched as “corporate social innovation” (Mirvis et al., 2016).

The third position promotes SI’s exclusivity (Marques et al., 2018; Solis-Navarrete et al., 2021). One of the earliest scholarly attempts to separate social from technological innovation is by Ogburn (1964). SI is distinct in both its purpose and content. SI is intentional in its social welfare pursuit, making it markedly distinct to the market-oriented goals of traditional innovations (Bright & Godwin, 2010; Cajaiba-Santana, 2014; Edwards-Schachter et al., 2012; Solis-Navarrete et al., 2021; Soma et al., 2018). Content-wise, SI’s non-material form is juxtaposed against the tangible technical innovations (Weerawardena & Mort, 2012). The process of innovation also serves as a key point of departure. Mainstream innovations relate to processes and products (Howaldt & Kopp, 2012; Tortia et al., 2020) or recombination of material capital (Edwards-Schachter et al., 2012); whereas SI is about changes in social practices (Blanco & León, 2017; Neumeier, 2012, 2017). The social aspect remains central within SI processes. Thus, Habisch and Adaui (2013, p. 72) state “…rather they [social innovations] owe themselves to a recombination of relationships among different actors, which are grounded in an extension or transformation of their social or cultural capital”. van der Have and Rubalcaba (2016) identify a scholarly agreement around social need-orientation and social relations-mobilisation as “core elements” (p. 1930) of SI, arguing that definitions should be built around these dimensions. Empowerment of marginalised actors is also one of SI’s core tenets (Spijker & Parra, 2018). Shifts in power relations can materialise as resistance to existing systems, socio-political capacity enhancement (Bock, 2016) and pursuit of inclusive political processes (Marques et al., 2018). Hence, the recombination of social relations and redistribution of power in favour of marginalised communities remain at the crux of SI (Blanco & León, 2017; Bund et al., 2015; Marques et al., 2018; Scott-Cato & Hillier, 2010). Marginalised or disadvantaged groups, identified notably as SI’s primary beneficiary, include those deprived of access to essentials for a dignified life (von Jacobi et al., 2017) and/or who are in a disadvantageous position that limits their capabilities to integrate into or cope with mainstream societal arrangements (Fougère & Meriläinen, 2021), where their needs are neglected or worsened by state/ market mechanisms (Montgomery, 2016).

Upon comparing the three positions, we contend the distinguishing aspects of SI, illustrated in Fig. 2, can only at best be by-products of business and/or technological innovation. Without foregrounding SI on these dimensions collectively, it is not possible to separate the concept meaningfully from other innovation classes, cement its commitment to common good, and identify appropriative usage of the concept. Additionally, reducing the process down to other innovations negates the concept’s expanse, which cuts across numerous contexts, challenges, and actors (Ziegler, 2017).

Fig. 2
figure 2

Core and distinguishing elements of social innovation

Appropriation of Social Innovation by Different Sectors

The malleability of SI enabled various actors and sectors to use the concept to advance and legitimise their agendas (Ashta et al., 2014; Marques et al., 2018; Pellicer-Sifres et al., 2017). Such plural claims have led authors to wonder if SI is just a “political jargon” (Bock, 2016, p. 554), or a buzzword (Pol & Ville, 2009), thereby lacking scientific mettle (Neumeier, 2012). Nonetheless, having considered SI’s distinguishing aspects, we contend it is not a hollow concept. Hence, we now assess how well these distinguishing aspects are upheld by key sectors, as reported in the reviewed articles, and why we think certain claimants can be appropriating the term to foster agendas away from the common good.

Social Innovation Used by Policymakers or Used as a Policy Tool

Social innovation is inherently political in nature (Ayob et al., 2016; Montgomery, 2016). It germinates and grows within a political milieu (Sinclair et al., 2018). After all the concept comes with positive connotations with its intent to catalyse positive social change. This normativity of SI where it is an almost de facto “more effective” solution than existing alternatives has meant that certain programmes and ideas labelled as socially innovative can be diffused without rigorous scrutiny. SI has, thus, emerged as a popular policy tool (Ayob et al., 2016), particularly within the Global North (Fougère & Meriläinen, 2021). Even in the UK innovation landscape, it has strong presence in policy discourses and has attracted public investment and a supportive regulatory framework (Grimm et al., 2013). Such support should be welcomed, but according to Osborne and Brown (2011) innovations promoted to combat social challenges do not address root issues like reforming public service mechanisms. Instead, arbitrary labelling has enabled rebranding of prevailing political agenda to appeal to different parties or passing on of non-novel actions as SI (Marques et al., 2018). Using case studies from Scotland, Sinclair et al. (2018) argue that the uncritical acceptance of SI has enabled local authorities to use the term to preserve their political and institutional power. In our view, such efforts of “short-term policymaking opportunism” (Chalmers, 2012, p. 20) amounts to appropriation of the notion of SI. The primary goal here is political interest, including neoliberalism, as opposed to meeting the needs of marginalised communities; the process and outcome is a retention or widening of the status quo instead of empowerment of these communities.

Used for Advancing Neoliberalism

Policymakers’ engagement with SI has been criticised for implicitly advancing neoliberalism (Sabato et al., 2017) by working against social cohesion and equality and pushing vulnerable communities further into marginalisation (Grimm et al., 2013). Yet, under the SI label, policies are re-packaged to promote individual’s enterprise, valorise efficiency-based services and subsume economic results within the promise of social inclusion. In so doing, policymakers implicitly transfer their responsibilities like provision of healthcare, social services, etc. onto citizens, making them responsible for their own welfare. This enables shifting of responsibility of public and merit goods provision to non-public sector organisations (Fougère et al., 2017) and promotion of cost-based efficiency as SI (Sabato et al., 2017). Even if such policy programmes are on paper for the marginalised, in-effect top-down covert neoliberalist interventions co-opt SI and risk exacerbating marginalisation (Fougère & Meriläinen, 2021).

Co-Opted by Marketised Forces

The private sector has its share in appropriating social innovation. Unsurprisingly, some of the most widely used definitions of SI, like the ones by the Young Foundation and Mulgan (2006), Pol and Ville (2009) or that of the European Union’s connect SI to economic components (Fougère et al., 2017). Advocates of SI by the for-profits suggest the necessity of profitability to uphold social impact creation under the pretext of organisational sustainability (Austin & Seitanidi, 2012; Bitzer & Hamann, 2015). Some cases bluntly identify their goal of gaining competitive advantage or furthering business potential or legitimacy (Dionisio & Vargas, 2020; Lashitew et al., 2020). Bright and Godwin (2010) consider such market-oriented targets a by-product or second-tier outcome of SI. Additionally, the growing prominence of cross-sector collaboration in or as SI adds to the private sector’s claim of being socially innovative (Pot et al., 2012; Ziegler, 2017). While novel ideas transcend sectors and networks, SI’s core goals need to be oriented away from profit-making purposes even if the private sector collaborates (Klievink & Janssen, 2014). Market avenues are poor and problematic choices for diffusing SI as profit orientation will constrain users’ access (Marques et al., 2018). The private sector’s engagement may have practical utility, but important questions are raised regarding implications on the users, ultimate beneficiaries, and accountability (Sinclair & Baglioni, 2014). When the marginalised is termed as “BoP market” or bottom of the pyramid (see Bitzer & Hamann, 2015, p. 6; Lashitew et al., 2020), we question if the private sector’s intrinsic institutional logics will risk cooption of SI for economic targets at the expense of the disadvantaged. Practical examples have shown us such appropriation via the commodification of disadvantaged communities. Microfinance was once heralded as a global panacea of social development and is considered a strong specimen of SI. However, increasing marketisation of such services and influx of for-profits led to cases of mission drift and profiting off the poor (Ashta et al., 2014). In Andhra Pradesh, India, the microfinance industry led by private sector institutions coupled with state-endorsed neoliberal principles caused over-indebtedness of land-poor farmers. Several farmers committed suicide allegedly in the face of ruthless collection practices by these organisations (see Taylor, 2011). Labelling these efforts as SI is appropriative because it reinterprets SI’s purpose as pursuit of economic gains, exploits SI via processes of commodification of social needs or impact and consequently, risks worsening marginalised communities' needs and depleting their network and capacity.

The Curious Case of Third Sector Organisations

The third sector also warrants scrutiny. Despite the multiplicity of actors and sectors undertaking SI, there is a preference towards organisations that have a “social mandate” (Nicolopoulou et al., 2017, p. 369), or those from the third sector (Tjornbo & Westley, 2012). “Distinctive participation of the ‘civil society/third sector” is identified as a core feature of the SI process (Edwards-Schachter & Wallace, 2017). Social economy organisations are strong vehicles or a “laboratory” for SI (Sanzo et al., 2015). They can imbibe elements conducive to generating SI, like social motivation, collective action, horizontal governance, and “socialization of assets” (Shier & Handy, 2015; Tortia et al., 2020, p. 468). Nonetheless, does this acceptance mean unequivocally endorsing the third sector as risk-free? Marques et al. (2018) suggest that TSOs also can be guilty of appropriating SI in ways that curb social good. Bright and Godwin (2010) pointed out that “virtuous intent” is not exclusive to non-profits. Neither are all TSOs inherently socially innovative (Solis-Navarrete et al., 2021). An analysis by Teasdale et al. (2020) shows how a global TSO rehashes promise of a ‘utopia’ in its public communications, but its actions remain akin to replicating existing power disparities. To this extent, the third sector’s actions could retain or worsen power disparities against the marginalised communities; hence, its use of the SI concept can be appropriative. Teasdale et al. (2020), however, gives a rare example as largely there is a blind spot in literature in empirically showcasing problematic involvement of TSOs with SI.

Separating Social Innovation for the (Common) Good from the Bad

Arguments against the appropriative and neoliberalist usage of social innovation are consistent with the distinction/typology proposed by Montgomery (2016) on SI schools of thought: technocratic and democratic. This distinction is based on considering to whom the social innovation process gives voice or power. The technocratic side is akin to a neoliberal apologist position reinforcing existing status quo. Conversely, the democratic stance promotes social justice and empowerment of deprived communities (Montgomery, 2016). The technocratic side has some correspondence with our conceptualisation of appropriation of SI to foster agendas away from the common good, whereas the democratic side fosters the common good. We take interest in this typology since it can help us establish the current trajectory of SI discourse within academia. We extracted some broad strokes to identify the criteria composing the two schools of thoughts, respectively. These are developed primarily from Montgomery (2016) but are combined with the takes on neoliberalist SI from Fougère et al. (2017) and Fougère and Meriläinen (2021) and inclusive SI from Marques et al. (2018) as these papers offered conceptual convergence.

The technocratic side’s characteristics broadly include: (1) Fusing boundaries between the state and the market and minimising confrontation against hegemonic initiatives; (2) shifting responsibility to the third sector to justify welfare state cuts; (3) prioritising market competition especially under the pretext of efficiency; (3a) necessitate initiative upscaling to justify introduction of novel private sector-led funding mechanisms or investments; (3b) hence, SI gets assessed by conventional economic metrics like social return on investment; (4) pivoting the innovation process’ success on individual talent or “charismatic” entrepreneurs; (5) extending such Schumpeterian view from the economic realm to the political that houses an “elitist theory of democracy” (Montgomery, 2016, p. 1989); (6) commodifying the meaning of ‘social’; for example, equating empowerment with successes as a competitive individual; (7) focusing on labour market inclusion as a key answer to societal ails.

Conversely, the democratic side, on top of resisting the above, largely embodies the following: (1) communities are at the heart of knowledge construction; (2) social relations transformation is not a competition-based pursuit; (3) community-led or collective action-based initiatives are prioritised which meet social needs via increases in “social and political capacities” (p. 1991); (4) SI process can lead to the politicisation of marginalised groups, via horizontal power distribution. Therefore, unless a process deemed to be SI “effectively delivers a more inclusive political process, by integrating previously neglected groups; and unless it steers policy towards addressing human needs that were previously unmet” and instead, only skews power towards the already powerful actors, then “real SI” has not taken place (Marques et al., 2018, p. 500).

These above criteria thus gave us a frame to categorise the selected articles along technocratic, democratic, or mixed classifications. Figure 3 illustrates these categories and their distribution. Figure 4 shows the trajectory of the publications. Jointly, the figures show that although the democratic perspective leads in number and is promisingly climbing upwards, the technocratic side maintains a strong foothold within SI discourse and therefore, merits attention. The difference is marginal and there is no guarantee the trends will continue as we observe sharp shifts in the trajectory of each in Fig. 4. The technocratic school’s foothold is apparently predicated on promoting the primacy of economic or neoliberalist processes as SI. Table 1 outlines four of the dominant avenues via which the case for such stance is presented within literature: For-profits, social enterprises, cross-sectoral collaboration, and policy. Table 1 also lists example papers and summarises how the contributions are technocratic even though the proposed interventions yield social outcomes. For example, Shaw and de Bruin (2013) is technocratic because the article emphasises on the economic opportunities for social enterprises to commercialise social impact or attain cost-based efficiency (Montgomery, 2016). Articles on policy for or as SI or cross-sector collaboration are labelled technocratic when they promote neoliberalism by privileging private sector organisations for the delivery of welfare services (Fougère & Meriläinen, 2021).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Categorising social innovation records

Fig. 4
figure 4

Publication trajectory

Table 1 Example of concepts by which the technocratic school of thought is advanced in literature

Since the technocratic side represents the clearest case of appropriative usage of SI for fostering heterogeneous agendas, which is the focus of this paper, we only show examples from this position in Table 1. Figure 5 outlines the disciplinary affiliation of the authors of the review where we see that a significant chunk of scholarship within the technocratic camp comes from Schools of Business, Management, and Economics. Notably, the democratic side shows higher evidence of multi and cross-disciplinary engagement.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Discipline affiliation of authors

Discussion & Conclusion: (Re)Defining the Sectoral Boundaries of Social Innovation

We started the enquiry from a recognition that negligent and liberal use of SI by various sectors has resulted in the appropriation of the term, amidst which some degree of demarcations is warranted. By establishing what SI stands for, based on its distinguishing aspects, we could identify when its core aspects are not upheld and therefore, when the notion of SI is appropriated with exploitative outcomes. Comparing various scholarly positions, we observe that SI is different from other types of innovations in at least two dimensions: firstly, its purpose and target group i.e. addressing social needs of marginalised or disadvantaged communities, and secondly, its intertwined process and/or outcome which is around mobilisation of social and/or power relations of such groups. We recognise that other innovations can have social outcomes, however this is not sufficient for defining any innovation as SI (Ayob et al., 2016; Edwards-Schachter et al., 2012). We recognise the learning points (Sinclair & Baglioni, 2014) and shared strands between different innovation groups (Edwards-Schachter & Wallace, 2017). Nonetheless, such efforts should not translate into neglecting the distinct elements of SI and the concept’s progress in getting its foot in academia (Edwards-Schachter & Wallace, 2017).

Distinguishing SI from other innovations enables us to identify its appropriation for advancing heterogenous agendas. Hence, we highlighted the risks of appropriation by diverse actors. In expanding public sector’s appropriation of SI, we do not imply all the sector’s efforts are problematic. What is imperative is stringent scrutiny of any policy or programme adopting the notion of SI, which can easily be a trope for neoliberal policies. SI can potentially combat neoliberalism by realising its “promise to create sustainable economic growth and benefit those groups of society which are marginalised” (Grimm et al., 2013, p. 446). SI can be “a mechanism for restoring depleted communities” (Chalmers, 2012, p. 20). Evidently, we reserve more caution regarding the private sector’s for-profit efforts. Indeed, these organisations can be of varying sizes, and be locally or community embedded. Nonetheless, the profit-motive remains concerning with the risk of mission drift and commodification of social needs. Regarding the sector’s social impact, those efforts can be lauded without being subsumed within SI. The sector already has concepts like business or technological innovation, or CSR to go by. Finally, we also recognise the third sector’s ability to strengthen hegemonic forces, thus, prompting caution over its actions. If all three key sectors’ engagement with SI yields a possibility of appropriation via promoting agendas other than the common good, who is advancing SI? It appears that a subgroup of TSOs i.e. grassroots or bottom-up community initiatives, has more redeeming features compared to other actors. It does so by imbibing the core and distinguishing tenets of SI we identified earlier (Edwards-Schachter & Wallace, 2017). Grassroots TSOs: (i) can address situated needs (Pellicer-Sifres et al., 2017; Tortia et al., 2020), (ii) are driven by local civil society actors or community organisations (Bund et al., 2015; Estensoro, 2015), (iii) can further systemic reforms and drive local political discourse (Blanco & León, 2017), and (iv) can enable the formation of sustainable communities (Pellicer-Sifres et al., 2017). Most importantly, community organisations act as a hub of local knowledge and local social relations (Altuna et al., 2015; Maclean et al., 2013). Such initiatives are intrinsically socially missioned and oriented towards transforming social and/or power relations of deprived or marginalised communities, thereby fitting the core and distinct dimensions of SI. With cross-sector collaboration, irrespective of its promise, the dominant group (e.g. the public sector) can subdue collaborators for own agenda (see Sinclair et al., 2018) or resist SI altogether (Ghys, 2020). Such pervasive power play in the SI landscape calls for extra watchfulness in preventing playing SI into the hands of the powerful. Negotiating power dynamics is challenging since SI thrives within a complex ecosystem (Pel et al., 2020), where public institutions and policy are influential components (Sinclair et al., 2021). Nonetheless, we can simultaneously recognise the supportive and jeopardising influences of an entity on SI’s potential.

Ultimately, SI has attracted immense resources and policy support within a context of unequal distribution of and access to resources. Hence, if rebranding anything and everything as SI becomes possible, we dilute the claim of the more marginalised or resource-poor initiatives on those support. To fight the appropriation of SI for agendas outside the common good and promote real SI practice, policy and scholarship, the democratic school of thought needs to be advanced. This can put SI in practice and policy through rigorous scrutiny and promote organisations undertaking real SI. It is the public and the third sectors that are committed to addressing democratisation and empowerment of marginalised communities. However, the former is by statutory obligation whereas the latter by motivation. This is not to say the third sector cannot misstep. What primarily helps the sector commit to SI is its segment that is spatially bound to a local community’s needs and inclusion by emerging from its very heart through collective action. Hence, we deem these organisations should be prioritised by resource providers, policymakers, and scholarship looking to promote SI.

We are aware that our position reiterates and reattaches normativity to the meaning of SI. Normativity, arguably, dissuades or stunts experimentation or debate. Nonetheless, SI has a strong normative tradition with the term ‘social’ rooted in human interaction and relationship building. It is, thus, counter-productive to attempt to disregard so. If we cannot postulate that such innovation is desirable, why pursue it in the first place by committing ample resources and policy in its favour? More importantly, if we posit SI with vulnerable communities’ needs or sensitive issues like climate crisis then ignoring a normative debate can make exploitation possible. Additionally, although our study utilises scholarship from the Global North, our take does not necessarily present a skewed and occidental view of SI (Pozzebon et al., 2021). We believe that researchers should step up and associate with diverse disciplines to import alternative and critical views on SI. Our views adhere to the limited but existing critical commentary that urges caution regarding ill-considered application of concepts that beget grave policy and social implications (Montgomery, 2016; Moulaert & MacCallum, 2019; Sinclair et al., 2018, 2021). Our study makes a conceptual contribution by applying the concept of appropriation on SI to consolidate and compare the possibility of so by the three key sectors to settle at the socially innovative promise of bottom-up community-oriented third sector organisations. Future research can empirically establish how such organisations uphold a democratic side of SI and what are their resource needs.