New Combinations of Social Practices in the Knowledge Society

  • Josef Hochgerner


Paraphrasing the famous quote from Schumpeter, who initially explained innovation as a ‘new combination of production factors’, social innovation can be defined as a new combination of social practices. In order to qualify as social innovations, such combinations or the creation and implementation of absolutely new practices must be intentional, aiming at solving a social issue, and produce effects in terms of novel social facts. Implementation and impact distinguish social innovations from social ideas. Social objectives and rationales, rather than economic ones, make them differentiable from business-driven innovations. However, social innovations take place in business as well as in the public sector and civil society. From a particular sociological point of view, social innovations are becoming of increasing relevance not only because of the frequently mentioned so-called ‘Grand Challenges’ the knowledge society faces in the twenty-first century. On the one hand, re-integration of the most effective economy ever is on the agenda in society, aiming at the ‘management of abundance’. On the other, even the nexus between man-made social systems and human nature may need re-configuration.


Civil Society Innovation Process Social Practice Synthetic Biology Knowledge Society 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

1 The Issue: Why Social Innovation?

The potential of human society to create wealth and well-being is as formidable as that to produce threatening impacts on a global scale, together shaping a specific man-made cultural and material environment affecting social and individual life. Such capacities have expanded rapidly since the age of industrialization and are progressing at even accelerated pace under the present conditions of the globalized economy in contemporary knowledge societies. Humankind can draw on complex statehood, international organizations, daily improving technologies including infrastructures, efficient transport systems and worldwide communication networks, affluent food production and medical aid unthinkable just one or two generations ago. Whilst average life expectancy in Europe was at about 50 around 1900, it is about 80 for a new-born around 2000.1 Yet potential is there as well for nuclear overkill and other disasters like climate change. Financial capital is ‘making money’ beyond the real economy and out of control (financialization, cf. Krippner 2005; Palley 2007; Radermacher 2010), producing hunger and the extreme poverty of hundreds of millions next to obscene wealth.

Increasing wealth, measured in global GDP as well as expressed in the rising numbers (and their personal wealth) of ‘high net worth individuals (HNWIs), those with US$ 1 million or more at their disposal’2 is based in fact on innovations and industrial progress achieved mainly during the second half of the twentieth century. It is neither territorially fixed, nor any more in the range of measures determined by nation states or national societies. To distribute wealth more equitably and sustainably, i.e. to secure livelihood and quality of life now and in the future, the knowledge society desperately needs knowledge and social innovations capable of turning knowledge (i.e. facts, cognition, even attitudes) into action, instigating appropriate social practices and behaviour.

The term Knowledge Society indicates a state in the development of humankind, in which ‘knowledge’ plays specific roles in everyday life, in social relations and economic dynamics from local to global scales. To an unprecedented extent, new and improved knowledge is nowadays being produced and accelerated by scientific research and effectuated by innovation. Based on this assumption, the opening paragraph of the EC Communication on the Europe 2020 Flagship Initiative ‘Innovation Union’ lists a number of severe problems, mentions the crisis, and states no less than that the future standard of living will depend on pushing innovation:

At a time of public budget constraints, major demographic changes and increasing global competition, Europe’s competitiveness, our capacity to create millions of new jobs to replace those lost in the crisis and, overall, our future standard of living depend on our ability to drive innovation in products, services, business and social processes and models. This is why innovation has been placed at the heart of the Europe 2020 strategy. Innovation is also our best means of successfully tackling major societal challenges, such as climate change, energy and resource scarcity, health and ageing, which are becoming more urgent by the day. (European Commission 2010, p. 2)

Current and future generations appear to be becoming dependants of the knowledge society. In this perspective, knowledge, represented primarily in science, technology and innovation, takes the place of industry and agriculture as the key attribute for denoting the main characteristic of the society in question. Research and innovation are required to meet today’s challenges, in particular the ‘Grand Challenges’ of the future. However, a number of critical issues seem to be disguised behind this general and in principle very optimistic assessment of what is termed the knowledge society.

Society in the twenty-first century may be labelled the ‘information society’, the ‘knowledge-based information society’, or the ‘knowledge society’. Whatever phrase is used or will be used in the future when looking back with the benefit of hindsight, the present state of affairs results from the daunting success of industry, modernization, research and development in technology, transforming social structures from those of an industrial society towards what we now call the information or the knowledge society (cf. Beniger 1986; Stehr 1994; Castells 1998; Heidenreich 2003).

The concept of the knowledge society emphasizes immaterial and specific intangible features of products and services in economic processes, and of innovations in particular. Thereby the boundaries between the economic and social spheres are becoming blurred. At the same time, the traditionally predominant view of innovation as an exclusively economic concept needs adaptation and expansion. Beyond knowledge, realizing innovation requires investment, technologies and techniques, research and, frequently neglected, but indispensible, social resources such as commitment, creativity, enduring labour and co-operation. Social innovations enable new uses of knowledge, involving tacit knowledge as well as scientifically generated facts and cognition. However, the decisive criterion of the knowledge society in its fuzzy distinction from the industrial society is not sheer quantities of more or novel knowledge. For sure, the world society (cf. Stichweh 2004; Meyer 2010), emerging yet lagging behind the globalized economy, certainly requires new knowledge, but this is nothing basically new. Knowledge was and is crucial to mankind at any stage in its development to survive and generate what later generations may call progress, sometimes fundamental enough to speak of a new era. In the case of the knowledge society, it consists of new conditions of knowledge generation, new channels of knowledge diffusion and hitherto unknown methods of knowledge utilization that make the difference. Nonetheless, it should be kept in mind that the basic function of knowledge is to provide the ‘capability to act’ (Stehr 1994, p. 208).

New forms of knowledge generation by extended functions and roles of science have been termed by Gibbons et al. (1994) as ‘Mode 2 knowledge production’. Science and scientific methods, the evaluation of facts and the verification of results have become increasingly relevant ever since Galileo Galilei attempted to communicate the findings of science to a wider public in the seventeenth century (Dialogus). The Industrial Age was based on exploiting new resources (extending from raw materials, energy, human resources to the scientific comprehension of laws of nature), breeding, by virtue of its huge turnover of matter, energy, output and labour, urgent needs for the management of such processes by new and more efficient ways of information processing and knowledge production.

During the development of the industrial society, scientific research, technological progress and innovation amplified the production of wealth, yet consequently led to the unbearable depletion of natural resources and many unexpected as well as undesired effects. It became a prerequisite of continuous development to acquire, store and process previously inconceivable amounts and forms of information and knowledge: ‘The information society … is not so much the result of any recent social change as of increases begun more than a century ago in the speed of material processing’. (Beniger 1986, vii) In the post-industrial era (cf. Bell 1974) of the now so-called knowledge society, scientific knowledge production, using multiple sources of data, information and knowledge, equals the importance of the traditionally accounted factors of production, i.e. soil, labour and capital.

The knowledge society not only requires more knowledge and science. It also produces the ‘knowledge paradox’. Science, scientific methods and science-based knowledge are usually seen as providing appreciably more and superior knowledge. Yet they also entail more scrutiny to often controversial issues, on the one hand, and an awesome abundance of ‘news’, bemusing large sections of even, sometimes in particular, well educated societies, on the other. Thus, the new production of knowledge at the same time produces a cognition of nescience, i.e. the awareness of not knowing (Heidenreich 2003).

Gibbons et al. (1994, p. 167) summarized the inherited Mode 1 of science as ‘the complex of ideas, methods, values and norms that has grown up to control the diffusion of the Newtonian model of science to more and more fields of enquiry and ensure its compliance with what is considered sound scientific practice’. Nowadays, the generation and utilization of new knowledge requires more science and scientific methods, but is less under the control of scientists; sound scientific practice becomes mingled with other practices from a variety of professions as well as from laypersons. Knowledge is increasingly produced ‘on demand’, involving stakeholders beyond science and research organizations or funding agencies. Knowledge production relies more and more on collaboration between scientists and users of knowledge. In Mode 2, the modified function of science is ‘knowledge production carried out in the context of application and marked by trans-disciplinarity, heterogeneity, organizational heterarchy and transience, social accountability and reflexivity, and quality control which emphasizes context- and use-dependence, results from the parallel expansion of knowledge producers and users in society’. (ibid.)

The social factor, alongside the technical one, was already emphasized as fundamentally relevant in the European Commission’s ‘Green Paper on Innovation’ (European Commission 1995, p. 11). ‘Innovation is not just an economic mechanism or a technical process. It is above all a social phenomenon. Through it, individuals and societies express their creativity, needs and desires. By its purpose, its effects or its methods, innovation is thus intimately involved in the social conditions in which it is produced.’

This statement addressed the fact that innovation has social aspects. But there was no reference to anything like social innovation. The present concept found its way into the politics, economics and science of many different countries only a few years ago, particularly achieving some significance after 2009. Now there are public debates on the topic, and many institutions are devoting themselves to social innovation. Explanations of the importance of social innovation can be found in the official documents of a number of EU Member States, as well as in the EU Flagship Initiative ‘Innovation Union’.3 The intensive examination of the topic on a European level began in the context of the ‘Renewed Social Agenda’ of 2008,4 and through the preview of the future EU Innovation Policy (Business Panel 2009) initiated by the Directorate General for Enterprise and Industry of the European Commission. The so-called BEPA Report (Hubert et al. 2010) was published, and in 2011 the European-wide campaign ‘Social Innovation Europe’5 commenced. The same year, social innovation was first announced as a topic of research in the European Seventh Framework Programme for Research, Technology Development and Innovation.

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 of them. In addition, as the ‘Grand Challenges’ are becoming ever more urgent (challenges ranging from climate change to ageing societies, financialization, poverty, social exclusion, migration and social conflicts), research, teaching and support of social innovations are also gaining in importance. The social, economic, and cultural changes of the twenty-first century are creating requirements for the analysis and implementation of innovation in general, and of social innovation in particular. These requirements are clearly appearing to reach out beyond the scope of economics.

With regard to the Grand Challenges, the Europe 2020 strategy6 sets quantitatively measurable goals: to raise employment to 75 % of the work force; to increase investment in research, technology, and innovation to 3 % of the GDP of the EU; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 %, to increase energy efficiency by 20 %, and to have 20 % of the energy produced in Europe come from renewable resources; in the field of education, to decrease the rate of school drop-outs to under 10 %, to increase the proportion of university (or other higher-education) graduates to 40 % of the respective age cohort; in the fight against poverty, to achieve an absolute, fixed goal of ‘less than 20 million’ under the subsistence minimum. In order to reach these goals, new technologies and economic measures will be needed on an unprecedented scale and social innovations will be absolutely indispensible. The need for innovative changes to social practices exists in both the public and private sectors, as well as in civil society organizations (the ‘Third Sector’).

Against this background, social innovation may be considered any activity that expands the capability to act (of parts or the whole of society), and enables or leads to concrete action. Social innovations are components of today’s general cultural and social transformation. Under the conditions of progressive mechanization and globalization, the significance of social innovations is increasing in many areas of society. Individuals’ behaviour in informal networks can be just as socially innovative as organizational development and conflict resolution in organizations; as diversity management; as new teaching and learning models in the education system; or as systemic changes in labour, social, or tax laws. Social innovation can emerge as new rules for participation and decision-making in social processes, as services that influence the social situation of specific segments of the population, and as changed patterns of behaviour or improved concepts of social protection.

Ideas for social developments become social innovations when they result in practices which are either totally new or more effective than alternative concepts, and are thus accepted by society and put to use. Only when a social idea is implemented and disseminated does it become a social innovation, making a contribution towards the overcoming of a concrete problem and meeting one of existing social needs, a need that may be either new or long-standing. Just as technical discoveries are only counted as innovations once they have become marketable as products and processes and are disseminated, so must social innovations produce sustainable benefits to target groups.

2 Social Innovation Theory

The classical innovation paradigm comprises new combinations of production factors, 7 enabling the development of novelties in technology, services and business management. Such focus and confinement to the business sector does not cover the full range of innovations required to advance sustainable socio-economic and environmental development in the transition from the industrial to the knowledge society. Innovation must be considered a term much wider than is conventionally conceived. There is less necessity to justify social innovation in addition to innovation than to change the general concept of innovation to become more inclusive and comprehensive.

Fundamental societal changes require the inclusion of social innovations in a paradigm shift of the innovation system (Howaldt and Jacobsen 2010). The new innovation paradigm is essentially characterized by the opening up of the concept of innovation processes to societal characteristics, e.g. the new relevance of knowledge and Mode 2 Science. Besides companies and industrial corporations, now and in the future universities and research institutions, even individual citizens and customers, will become players in innovation processes. Terms and concepts such as open innovation, user-led innovation, customer integration and innovation networks8 reflect aspects of this development. Innovation is actually a general social phenomenon; changes in innovation processes affect innovative products and services and their impacts on almost all walks of life (cf. Rosted et al. 2009).

Innovations in technology and business remain imperative, yet social innovations are essential in order to reap their full potential, at the same time creating beneficial social developments as inclusive as they are diverse. They not only have a share in social affairs as such, but in preserving and expanding the innovative capacity of companies and society as a whole: ‘The most urgent and important innovation advance in the twenty-first century will take place in the social field. Technical innovations will continue, of course, and bring about a materially and immaterially utterly changed environment and new living conditions in comparison with previous possibilities; but the social innovations will be those that the inhabitants of this world must first produce or ensure’ (translated from Hochgerner 1999, p. 37).

Innovations in economic as well as societal processes are undeniably relevant and even increasing in significance. No matter what kind of innovation we consider, any innovation constitutes empirical facts. It is the outcome of an applied idea, tested and approved by operation, success and acceptance. Therefore, the assessment and measurement of the scope and quality of innovation must be based on facts. In the case of commercialized innovations, e.g. a new technology, these are economic facts, whereas in the case of social innovations we need to watch out for social facts,9 affected or created by new combinations of social practices. As regards business innovations, appropriate measures and methodologies have been developed over the past decades in very rich scientific literature, establishing statistical indicators and benchmarks to take account of innovations with primarily economic, but also social impacts (cf. OECD, EUROSTAT 2005).

Innovation without a prefix mainly refers to new products or processes based on advanced technology and new combinations or designs of technical components successfully employed in existing or new markets. In discussions and programmatic declarations on national, European and international levels, the greatest significance is attached to the acceleration and reinforcement, and also the continuous amendment, of innovation processes. Frequently, innovation is regarded as the final product of the scientific generation of new knowledge and its economic application. Indeed, by deliberately promoting research, technology and innovation, today’s society has considerably expanded its potential to improve current and future living conditions. These developments are continuing and leading to overwhelming quantities of new products and consumer goods, novel infrastructures for transport and communication, longer life spans, yet also to individual and social stress in cases of unexpected and controversial impacts.

While the concept of social innovation is not new, it has only recently been recognized as a key component of innovation in scientific and policy circles in Europe and other world regions. Yet, despite the fact of its recognition, there is still a long way ahead to move from the already relatively high awareness to the systematic promotion and implementation of social innovations in the private and public spheres. To date social innovation is neither on a par with nor integrated in the classical notion of innovation, and in real life (in all societal sectors, including business, public and civil society) social innovations still remain a kind of second choice, largely unobtrusive and underrated in terms of impact and effectiveness. Indeed, social innovations appear petty compared with the Grand Challenges for which new and promising levers to provide solutions are being sought. In order better to meet rising expectations as regards the functions and efficacy of social innovations, a clarification of the concept is first required, followed by the establishment of reliable indicators and methods for measuring the resources used in the process of social innovation generation and the accountable effects.

Innovations are elements of the modus vivendi through which the economy and society ensure their existence in flux. Schumpeter saw economic development processes not as being driven by the commonly assumed quest for equilibrium, but by inequality and instability. The same applies to society as a whole, as social change goes on all the time (and may become modified to a certain extent by intentional social innovations). How much innovations themselves ever cause and perpetuate change, innovations must be viewed as necessities of modern economic and social systems, a means enabling the economy (and society, too) again and again to face ongoing problems and new challenges. ‘The opening of new foreign or domestic markets and the organizational development of handicraft enterprises and factories into such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of an industrial mutation – if I may use this biological expression – that constantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, constantly destroys the old structure, ‘creative destruction’ is the significant fact for capitalism. Capitalism consists of it, and in it every capitalist structure must live’ (translated from Schumpeter 2005, p. 137).

For more than 60 years following the Second World War, the capitalist system was marked by constant expansion and growing global power, largely unchecked after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the disappearance of competition between the two ideological systems. Thus, it is not surprising that economic categories and expectations have dominated the innovation discourse. But development towards a post-industrial innovation paradigm is beginning to emerge in conjunction with the rapidly increasing interest in social innovations in recent years. In such a paradigm, social innovations as well as technological and economic innovations could be comprehended as integrated components of social change in a ‘holistic’ interpretation of innovation (Hochgerner 2009, p. 35).

The relevance of an innovation should not be gauged exclusively by the respective reference system or the rationale of the economy, society, or technology. Although economic and social innovations differ according to their objectives and logics of action, all innovations are socially relevant in that they emerge under social conditions in different contexts and have social effects. However, social innovations that do not aim primarily at economic objectives may also produce economic effects. The contexts and interactions of different innovation processes are currently gaining in importance and will continue to do so in the future. The expanding sphere of ‘social innovation’ is finding its way internationally into policy-making, the economy, and science, as seen in the growing number of institutions researching and/or practically supporting social innovations and in political declarations of intent, conferences, and documents addressing the topic.

As indicated previously, in short terms, social innovations are new combinations of social practices. Yet a more detailed definition involving determinable properties is required to facilitate empirical analysis. Conceptualized for such analytical purposes, social innovations are new practices for resolving societal challenges which are adopted and utilized by the individuals, social groups and organizations concerned. This definition can be used in empirical research, whereby social innovation should be considered as a process, consisting of stages from the generation of an idea, on to intervention, implementation and impact (a ‘4-i-process’). Ideas (inventiveness and creativity) underlie the concepts and measures proposed, which, after targeted intervention (as a response to social challenges) and successful implementation, become innovations (producing social facts) only when utilized. Social innovations are not determined solely by the potential of an idea, but also by whether and to what extent the potential of an idea is realized. It depends on whether the ‘invention’ offers benefit to target groups, and thus a social idea mutates into a social innovation in the process of the implementation of new social practices, usage and dissemination.

Just as technology is socially constructed (shaped) to a certain extent, innovations, whether technological or social in nature, also develop under concrete cultural conditions. In the present with its global and defining ‘Western industrialized’ world economy, the economy dominates the foreground of society. More than 200 years of industrial development and the global assertion of the capitalist value system have led to an economic model with global interdependencies, but lacking adequate institutions and structures of a world society with shared interests, objectives, and standards which might be able to end poverty and dependence by steering and utilizing in targeted ways the enormous economic productivity. Schumpeter's Austro-Hungarian compatriot and contemporary, Karl Polanyi, perceived that the modern changes in ‘Economy and Society’ (also the title of Max Weber’s main work of 1922) had led to a separation and independence of economic processes and structures from society. In the course of this ‘great transformation’, different logics of development and action emerged, making society dependent on a specific type of economy, seen increasingly as something ‘external’ to society and socially uncontrollable (Polanyi 1978).

Accordingly, unlike earlier market forms,10 industrially and financially developed capitalism (the ‘system of the market economy’) became a specific institution of enormous significance for the overall structure of society. It means no more and no less than the treatment of society as an appendix to the market. The economy is no longer embedded in social relations, but social relations are embedded in the economic system. Such a predominance of modern economic conditions and criteria in or against society implies that societal structures appear determined by the economy. In this context, it is hardly surprising that there seems to be a value difference between ‘social’ and ‘economic’ innovations. Innovations in and through the economy, whose success can be defined and measured in sales and revenue figures, stand in the limelight and are heeded, financed, and applauded. Innovations outside the world of the economy, i.e., in state and civil society domains, not only seem different, but receive less attention, funding and acceptance.

However, this dichotomy is artificial and logically untenable. Generally, innovations are considered business innovations, but innovations in public and civil society sectors may also have economic causes and consequences. At the same time, social innovations can also be found in large corporations and small businesses (Kesselring et al. 2008; Kesselring 2009). What is important here are the objectives and outcomes: social innovations create social facts, whereas economic innovations create economic value added. In neither case does it mean that social facts must be positively assessed and desired (by all the people affected by them) or that economic value added should be sustainable in the broader sense of the word. Moreover, the social facts resulting from new practices (e.g. maintained by groups of people or organizations when acting in new roles or adhering to different sets of values) may also have economic effects. At the same time, economic innovations and innovative technologies can lead to new social facts (e.g., Web 2.0 technologies resulting in new communication patterns).

The intention, testing, implementation and dissemination of a new social practice that is enforceable against others will lead, as an innovation, to deviations from the routine current of reproducing stereotyped practices. The features of innovations in general, and of social innovations as defined here, can be observed in the actions and behaviour of individuals and groups, and in social relations or institutionalized procedures. Hence, they are accessible to empirical research. Max Weber’s concept of social action offers theoretical approaches. At the centre of Weber's theory of social action there is the subjective meaning of action, i.e., the intention and purpose of an intervention, and the reference of this action to ‘others’ (persons, groups, institutions, the social environment): “‘Social action’… intends to refer to such actions that in terms of the actor or actors relate to the behaviour of others and take their bearings from it” (translated from Weber 2005, p. 3).

Whenever social innovations are manifested in social practices, in the diction of action theory, it follows that they either lead to new forms of social action or presuppose social action. In either case, social innovations are expressed in a new definition (dimension or direction) of what constitutes the meaning of action and its relation to the social environment. Social action in families, school classes, working groups, and also in large social systems (administrative entities, states, major concerns etc.), is determined by given roles and functions. However, a recasting of these very roles and functions can modify the social systems themselves, or even affect the processes of social change at large. The latter depends on the form and ‘range’ of concrete innovations, i.e. in the case of systemic social innovations (cf. Hubert et al. 2010) at the macro level of society.

Here, it seems necessary to refer to the difference between incremental innovations (improving innovations), in particular the frequent ‘unobtrusiveness of social innovations’ (Aderhold 2010), on the one hand, and ‘basic innovations’11 relevant to many people and stakeholders affected, on the other. To make the entire spectrum of social innovations accessible to scientific analysis, both small-scale (affecting individuals) and large-scale (affecting social structures) changes must be defined in categories that may be applied in any functional system or sector of society. This represents a slightly adapted recourse to some elements of Parsons’ structural function theory (Parsons 1976). In this theory of social systems, function is understood as ‘the effect of a social component making a contribution towards realizing a specific system status and maintaining and integrating a social system’ (translated from Hurrelmann 1990, p. 41; author’s emphasis).

Though innovations are elements of systems dynamics, they also support the integration of social systems, since specific ways of change (innovation) add to continuance. Innovations certainly imply change, yet they contribute to stabilizing systems. ‘Stability’ may be achieved by safeguarding the status quo or by adapting to new requirements and challenges. Nevertheless, change may create instability, of course, leading to complete system collapse, the demolition of old systems, and the building up of new ones. In these processes, which often occur in parallel in society, innovations have a special significance. As already explained in Schumpeter’s innovation theory, they guarantee the survival of enterprises (maintenance of stability), but keep in motion the more comprehensive process of ‘creative destruction’ (dynamics of change). In comparison, social innovations sustain the success of social action in spite of imperilling challenges, whilst they are, at the same time, part of social change.

All innovations are socially relevant: those with objectives and rationality criteria to change economic parameters as well as those with social intentions affecting social practices. This also implies that, irrespective of the kind of innovation to be developed, realized or examined, the meanings and effects of innovations do not remain restricted to the respective functional system. Technological and economic innovations affect or change not only the functional system of the economy, but also the other major functional systems dealt with by Parsons, i.e., politics, law, and culture. It is equally evident that social innovations not only exert an influence on culture or politics, but also on the functional systems of law and the economy. Within these systems, the functional area of integration has major importance for maintaining the system as well as for change.

According to Parsons, four structural categories come together facilitating the integration in all social systems, i.e. ‘roles’, ‘collective’, ‘norms’, and ‘values’. Roles refer to the personal assignment or assumption of assignments; the collective stands for social relations abstracting from personal attributes; norms are rules of the most varied kinds (from house rules to laws and international agreements); values express general patterns of desirable modes of behaviour and attitudes which usually have the character of orientation, but may to a certain extent even assert normative significance. These structural categories embodied in social systems, from the roles of individuals to fundamental societal values, can be used to identify or designate different types of social innovations. The amended typology of innovations, usually restricted to products, processes, marketing, and organization, identified and assessed exclusively in the business sector, then includes roles, relations,12 norms, and values as categories of social innovations in all functional systems of society as a whole.

Such an enlarged typology of innovations goes beyond the sector of the economy. It can also make innovations in the State (in public administration, regional bodies, etc.) and in Civil Society (the so-called ‘Third Sector’) into the objects of empirical research. Of course, technical and non-technical economic innovations are and remain of salient significance for the functional area of the economy, just as innovations in values must primarily be situated in the functional area of culture.

The proposed categories of innovations are intended to help analyze the influences of and interactions between new elements of social practices, the objectives of novelties, their functions, and effects in empirical research. Theoretical considerations and definitions are necessary to prepare the ground scientifically for future innovation research in order to attain a position from which to record, comprehend and evaluate the social innovations required to meet the so-called ‘Grand Challenges’. A summary of the theoretical proposal here is intended to align the categories of social innovations with those established in business innovation research, which is based on four main types of innovation. These are in fact almost identical with the denotations introduced by Schumpeter a 100 years ago, when he produced his first typology of ‘new combinations of production factors’ (Table 1).
Table 1

Amendments to common types of innovation by categories denoting social innovation

Comparison of the ‘new combinations’ according to Schumpeter with the ‘main types of innovations’ according to the Oslo Manual and the main types of social innovations

New combinations of production factors (Schumpeter 2006)

Innovations in the corporate sector (OECD, EUROSTAT 2005, ‘Oslo Manual’)

New combinations of social practices: social innovations, established in the form of …

New or better products

Product innovations


New production methods

Process innovation


Opening up new markets



New sources of raw materials

Organizational innovations


Reorganization of the market position


3 Proceeding from Theory to the Measurement and Assessment of Social Innovations

In the case of the ‘main types of innovation’, the Oslo Manual lays down numerous specifications and detailed sets of indicators to identify innovations and to allow the input factors and outcomes to be gauged. The main types of social innovation need to be specified and equipped with measurable indicators all the same. Approaches are, e.g. to draw on statistics supporting methodological instrumentality like the Human Development Indicators (HDI –, as proposed by Blasy and Gruber (2011), and the Better-Life-Index of the OECD ( Significant contributions have already been made by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, headed by Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi.13 See also the contributions by Bassi and Wobbe in this book.

Hubert et al. (2010, p. 26) propose clearly distinguishing between the process dimension and the output dimension of social innovations: ‘The process dimension … implies that new forms of interaction are established’ [whereas] … ‘the output dimension … refers to the kind of value or output that innovation is expected to deliver: a value that is less concerned with mere profit, and including multiple dimensions of output measurement’. Another valuable distinction is presented in the same report by qualifying the particular social dimension of social innovations deriving from their characteristic objectives and intended impact, i.e.
  • The social demand perspective … innovations that respond to social demands that are traditionally not addressed by the market or existing institutions and are directed towards vulnerable groups in society.’

  • The societal challenge perspective … innovations that respond to those societal challenges in which the boundary between social and economic becomes blurred and that are directed towards society as a whole.’

  • The systemic changes perspective … innovations that contribute to the reform of society in the direction of a more participative arena where empowerment and learning are both sources and outcomes of well-being’ (ibid. 2011 edition, p. 36ff).

When analyzing the outcome of social innovations, it is of the utmost importance not to get caught in the trap of normative prejudice. In the BEPA-Report, for instance, the definition used appears to be normative: ‘Social innovations are innovations that are social in both their ends and their means. Specifically, we define social innovations as new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations. They are innovations that are not only good for society, but also enhance society’s capacity to act’ (Hubert et al. 2010, p. 7).

To be good for society and to enhance society’s capacity to act are perfect objectives that should be supported by social innovations. However, generally to expect that all innovations which are ‘social in their ends and means’ contribute to such aims means ignoring the sociological fact that people are different and have often quite contradictory intentions based on diverse interests and needs. What may appear ‘social’ (beneficial) to one group, at a given time, in a certain social strata or region, may prove irrelevant or even detrimental to others.

Analysts as well as promoters of social innovations must not assume social innovations ought to be ‘social’ in the simplistic sense of ‘good’. Anyone may hope so, but social innovations, just like any innovation, are neither invariably socially good to all social groupings or numbers of people affected, nor will they always and generally meet equal acceptance in the public. The attribute social is to be used in the meaning of purposeful relation to other individuals, social groups or institutions and organizations, as defined in action theory. It is not to be confused with caring, though, of course, social innovations are needed and possible in the socially extremely relevant domain of care (e.g. to establish institutionalized help for family carers).

Globalization accelerates ongoing social change. Under the conditions of globalization, innovations of all kinds affect increasing sections of society. They shape not only processes and trends in civil society, but also in public administration, in political institutions, in the economy, and in the professional associations of the social partners. At present and in the future, in addition to technical and economic innovations, a multiplicity of minor and major social innovations will become indispensible. Without them, peace and human development in keeping with the standards of industrial potentials will be at risk in a world society of eight to ten billion people, especially in the light of problems such as climate change and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor.

With reference to these challenges and to the assertion of society as an appendix to the economy (Polanyi 1978, p. 82), the most urgent basic innovation of the twenty-first century can be formulated as the re-integration of the economy in society. Apart from eliminating shortages, in terms of satisfying real needs, it is imperative to establish strategies and measures allowing for the management of abundance as a particularly urgent task in innovation. The ongoing financial crisis demonstrates the need for a variety of types of social innovation: New roles for the state, the banks, finance managers; changes in relations between the stakeholders; the undeniable necessity of norms and regulations and, last but not least, the enforcement of values, making societal values reliable or even the creation of new value systems. It appears irresponsible and untenable continuously to promote unlimited growth in any sort of market, whilst expecting the state and the world at large to balance deficits, social disparities and cope with resulting conflicts.

If social innovations are to play a (beneficial) role in the search for remedy, huge efforts will be required to generate and implement a wide variety of social innovations focusing on the systemic changes perspective. Among other preconditions, this would require a ‘state that is in the position effectively to supervise and sustainably to tax the profits skimmed off on money markets’ (translated from Bourdieu 1998, p. 119), preferential treatment of the production and services sectors over critical parts of the financial sector, special funds for a Global Marshall Plan,14 and a ban on speculation on food. In the EU, these and additional measures should be clustered in a New Deal for Europe (Schulmeister 2010).

Taking into account the incredible speed of vast and sensational innovations brought into being by science, technology and industry in the short period of time since about 1960 (after overall recovery from the Second World War), the next 50 years will see no smaller changes with dramatic impacts on individual and everyday life. Before long, synthetic biology will arrive on the stage, designing and constructing new biological parts, devices, and ‘re-designing existing, natural biological systems for useful purposes’. ( ‘Useful purposes’ may perhaps be assumed good for society, because (many, yet maybe only privileged) people will benefit from new medical treatment in the case of illness, yet also in case they wish to enhance the body and brain. Technologies and biological interventions may improve physiological capacities (health, strength, endurance, avoidance of genetic defects by prenatal diagnosis and treatment) and cognitive competences (brain enhancement by pharmacology, nexus to computers, implanted memory …). Such developments will produce chimerical possibilities to create social change and have effects beyond comprehension, extending the human impact on biological processes to potentially crossing the borderline between man-made conditions of living and manipulating human nature itself.

Genetic modification and, in an even wider perspective, synthetic biology can improve the individual’s capacity to act, thus enabling the adoption of new roles and engaging in additional relations in order better to cope with challenges. Moreover, technologically enhanced, super-intelligent, healthy stakeholders will be capable of implementing new norms and values. Novel norms and values may perhaps benefit the majority of people or social groups concerned. However, the reverse may also turn out to be true. All constituent elements of social innovations mentioned in this article seem to be in place. But still: Can social impact accruing from progress in biological science and innovative technologies based on genetic engineering and synthetic biology be considered social innovation? The answer to this question is no, even in case society adopts synthetic biology in the presumably near future, assessed by the majority as having a positive (good) impact. Here, the decisive fact is the vital necessity of society to enable the very existence of human beings. It is not only a fundamental pre-condition that humans need other persons to relate to in order to make a living, based on empathy, division of labour and many other requirements to maintain the vital functions of ‘body and soul’. Beyond that, homo sapiens has established and advanced his own and indispensible environment of social systems, which is the key to survival as well as to social and cultural development, including features such as science, technology and innovation.

Even enhanced individual human properties, physical and cognitive ones alike, would not be sufficient to permit merely the least marginal way of living we know, unless our ancestors had not initiated collective learning as cultural property, including individual potentials to acquire knowledge and to become and remain creative. The human brain of us contemporaries in the twenty-first century is the result of millions of years of biological history. In spite of its extremely slow and long-lasting development, the brains of people now living in the Knowledge Society do not differ substantially from those of humans living in the Stone Age (Linden 2007). What makes a difference is the culture of collective learning in extremely diverse social systems and adaptive modes. On the one hand, brain enhancement cannot compensate this social advantage in an individual’s seclusion, yet, on the other, biological upgrading of this sort separates learning, maybe even consciousness and personal self-concepts, from the vital primary societal base (Habermas 2005).


  1. 1.
  2. 2.
  3. 3.
  4. 4.
  5. 5.
  6. 6.
  7. 7.

    The first phrase used by Schumpeter (2006) before adopting the term innovation.

  8. 8.

    Examples from the vast literature on these developments: Franke et al. (2006), Chesbrough et al. (2006), Reichwald and Piller (2009).

  9. 9.

    A social fact is ‘any more or less laid down form of action with the capacity to exert an external compulsion on the individual; or also generally appearing in the field of a given society and possessing a life of its own, independent of its individual expressions’ (translated from Durkheim 1984, p. 5).

  10. 10.

    ‘Whereas History and Anthropology know of different economic forms, most of which contain the setting up of markets, they do not know of any economy before ours that was even remotely so dominated and controlled by markets’ (translated from Polanyi 1978, p. 72).

  11. 11.

    [The evolution of] ‘human beings … repeatedly shows forks and sprouting branches. A fork stands for the opening of a new path, a new work method …. I term such a change in direction from the previously customary practice a basic innovation. Technological basic innovations create new trades or branches of industry, non-technological basic innovations open up new fields of activity in the sphere of culture, in public administration and in social services etc. Basic innovations create new terrain for human activity’ (translated from Mensch 1975, p. 56f).

  12. 12.

    Instead of Parsons’ structural category ‘collective‘, I choose the concept of ‘relations’, for Parsons (1976, p. 181) is also primarily concerned with interactions (based on expectations, achievements, rights and duties) that become effective in a collective.

  13. 13.

    ‘While many of our measures are directed at ascertaining short-run movements in the level of market activity, the Commission considers that the time has come to make a clear move from measuring production to measuring welfare, to try to close the gap between our measures of economic performance and widespread perceptions of well-being.’ Stiglitz/Sen/Fitoussi, The Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress Revisited. Reflections and Overview, 63. (accessed on October 26, 2011).

  14. 14.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Zentrum für Soziale InnovationViennaAustria

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