Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Social Innovation and Why It Has Policy Significance

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Social Innovation and Why It Has Policy Significance

Article excerpt


Social innovation represents a very simple idea--that innovative social action can create social value beyond the capability of existing systems. Social innovation can both create new ways of addressing old issues and accelerate rates of social change. For public policy interventions, a key proposition is that social innovation may be understood as a process that has distinctive preconditions and stages, and those preconditions and stages can be understood and acted upon to promote innovation. Alternatively if no positive effort is made to identify and facilitate social innovation processes, policy interventions may well create barriers and the potential leverage of social innovation will be lost.

While practice in this area, led by innovative community sector and public managers is rushing ahead, theoretical commentary, which could lead to the development of models of practice, has been less evident. One obvious way to remedy this is to search for a clear definition of social innovation. This, however, runs the danger of leading into the mazes of social and innovation theory. Rather than doing that, our enquiry starts with a face value rubric under which innovation occurs when a new idea (or combination of old ideas) forms a different way of thinking and acting that changes existing ideas and/or practices to create a social benefit. In any case, for policy practitioners, the most important issue is not to define social innovation but to recognise it. In particular, understanding that innovation has preconditions and processes both of which can be acted upon is a necessary step to making it a practical option for organisational activity and government policy.

At a theoretical level the established policy-relevant debates which help locate social innovation include theorising around economic innovation, social capital, community strengthening and regional development. A brief account of each of these theoretical intersections is used here to set the scene for a discussion of the practice of social innovation and an identification of the components of this practice which might form the basis of a theoretical model.

Intersecting Theoretical Bases

Economic innovation

International commentary on economic innovation provides one set of ideas. which can be useful in establishing the character and locating the significance of social innovation. In its old form as the commercialisation of science and the introduction of new technology into production processes this line of commentary has a considerable pedigree including giants of economic theory such as Schumpeter (1939) and Rosenberg (1982). The impact of this view on business practice and public policy is seen in the normative status of Research and Development (R&D) as the dominant, and often the only, way of supporting and measuring innovation. Some contemporary critics of this approach have located innovation more in incremental changes in how productive activity is organised and the use it makes of changing technology, than in major scientific breakthroughs (Fagerberg et al. 2005). This emphasis on what happens in the workplace rather than in the laboratory has struggled to reverse the policy focus on R&D. Apart from anything else the latter lends itself to subsidies, grants and photo opportunities which fit comfortably into both administrative and political modus operandi. The more incremental approach to economic innovation focuses greater attention on how people in public, private and community enterprise constantly adopt and adapt new ideas often drawn from industry, locality and other networks. In this approach innovation often begins when a worker, customer or client identifies a problem in a product or service and seeks a remedy. It is this process which creates 'the social conditions of innovative enterprise' (Lanzonic 2007: 30ff). Most significantly for this article these new understandings of innovation processes start in practice rather in laboratory-based development of scientific knowledge. …

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