Social Innovation

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Social innovation is a novel way to connect social good with business methods and approaches. It is a way of thinking about using what we know about business operations, finance, strategy, and service and applying it to social problems.

Social innovation is a way of working, an approach to addressing social problems, a type of business model, and field of practice.


The term “social innovation” emerged in the late 20th century to describe a distinct type of innovation that focuses on addressing social needs and creating positive social change. While the concept of innovation has been discussed for centuries, the specific term “social innovation” gained popularity in the 1990s.

The origins of the term can be traced to various fields and disciplines. One influential source is the field of social entrepreneurship, which emphasizes using entrepreneurial approaches to tackle social challenges. The concept of social entrepreneurship gained attention in the 1980s and 1990s, with scholars and practitioners exploring innovative approaches to addressing social issues.

Another source of the term is the field of innovation studies, which traditionally focused on technological and economic innovation. However, scholars and researchers began recognizing the need to expand the scope of innovation to encompass social dimensions. They argued that innovation should not only be limited to technological advancements but should also encompass new ideas, practices, and collaborations that lead to social progress. Included in this was interest in using innovation and business thinking to address social injustices, inequities, and systemic barriers to participation in the economy.

The term “social innovation” gained further prominence with the publication of influential works, such as “The Power of Social Innovation” by Stephen Goldsmith in 2006 and “Social Innovation: What It Is, Why It Matters and How It Can Be Accelerated” by Geoff Mulgan and colleagues in 2007. These works contributed to the popularization of the term and helped solidify its usage in academic, policy, and practitioner circles.

Since then, the term “social innovation” has been widely adopted and applied in various contexts, including government policies, nonprofit organizations, and business sectors. It represents a growing recognition that innovation can and should be directed towards addressing social challenges, promoting social inclusion, and fostering sustainable development.


One influential early usage of the term “social innovation” can be found in the work of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. In his book “The Theory of Economic Development” published in 1911, Schumpeter introduced the concept of “entrepreneurial innovation.” Although he did not use the exact term “social innovation,” his ideas laid the groundwork for understanding innovation beyond purely technological advancements.

Schumpeter emphasized that entrepreneurs drive economic development by introducing new products, processes, and business models. He argued that innovation is not limited to technological inventions but includes organizational and market innovations. These insights formed the basis for later discussions on social innovation as scholars and practitioners expanded the concept to address broader social and environmental challenges.

While Schumpeter’s work was focused on economic innovation, it set the stage for subsequent thinkers to develop the concept of social innovation by recognizing the need to address societal issues through innovative approaches to policy, social programming, and education.

Social entrepreneurship is another aspect of social innovation, which has a more explicit business focus. The development of B-Corp industries is one example of social entrepreneurship in practice. Both concepts can work together in supporting innovation for social development and change.

Central Tenets

The key tenets of social innovation encompass the fundamental principles and characteristics that define the field. While different experts and scholars may articulate these tenets in various ways, the following are commonly recognized as the core principles of social innovation:

  1. Addressing social needs: Social innovation aims to tackle pressing social issues and meet unmet needs in society. It emphasizes identifying and addressing root causes of social problems, such as poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, and healthcare disparities.
  2. Collaboration and co-creation: Social innovation often involves collaboration among diverse stakeholders, including individuals, communities, organizations, and governments. It emphasizes the importance of engaging multiple actors in co-creating solutions to complex social challenges.
  3. Empowerment and inclusion: Social innovation aims to empower individuals and communities by involving them in the design and implementation of solutions. It seeks to ensure the inclusion of marginalized groups and amplify their voices in decision-making processes.
  4. Systemic change: Going beyond isolated interventions and aims to bring about systemic change. It seeks to transform the underlying structures, policies, and norms that perpetuate social problems, with the goal of creating lasting impact at a larger scale.
  5. Innovation and creativity: New ideas, approaches, and practices is another core of what social innovation tries to do. It’s about challenging the status quo and involves thinking creatively and adopting innovative methods, technologies, and business models to create sustainable solutions.
  6. Learning and adaptation: Social innovation embraces a culture of learning, experimentation, and adaptation. It recognizes the complexity of social issues and the need for continuous reflection and improvement to enhance the effectiveness and impact of interventions.
  7. Sustainability and resilience: Social innovation aims to foster solutions that are environmentally sustainable and economically viable over the long term. It seeks to build resilient communities and systems that can withstand future challenges and changes.
  8. Ethical and responsible practice: Social innovation values ethical considerations and responsible practices. It promotes transparency, accountability, and ethical behavior in all aspects of the innovation process, including data privacy, social impact assessment, and fair distribution of benefits.

These tenets provide a foundation for understanding the principles and values that guide social innovation. They reflect a holistic and multi-dimensional approach to addressing social challenges and creating positive societal change.

Key Sources

Some of the key references that have contributed to the understanding and advancement of social innovation include:

  1. The Power of Social Innovation: How Civic Entrepreneurs Ignite Community Networks for Good” by Stephen Goldsmith (2006) – This book explores the concept of social innovation and highlights the role of civic entrepreneurs in creating positive change at the community level.
  2. “Social Innovation: Blurring Boundaries to Reconfigure Markets” by Geoff Mulgan (2006) – Geoff Mulgan, a leading expert on social innovation, examines how social innovation can reshape markets and address complex social challenges.
  3. The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur” by Charles Leadbeater (1997) – This influential report explores the emergence of social entrepreneurs and their innovative approaches to tackling social problems.
  4. Social Innovation: Solutions for a Sustainable Future” by Adalbert Evers and Anne-Marie Guillemard (2012) – The book delves into social innovation as a transformative process and presents case studies and examples of successful social innovations.
  5. The Social Innovation Imperative: Create Winning Products, Services, and Programs that Solve Society’s Most Pressing Challenges” by Sandra M. Bates (2012) – This book provides a practical guide for organizations and individuals interested in driving social innovation and creating meaningful social impact.
  6. The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World” by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan (2008) – The authors explore the concept of social entrepreneurship and highlight examples of individuals and organizations that have harnessed the power of innovation to address social issues.
  7. Social Innovation and New Business Models: Creating Shared Value in Low-Income Markets” by Ana Claudia Arruda Laprovitera and Andréa da Rocha Bueno (2018) – This book explores the intersection of social innovation and business models, emphasizing the potential for creating shared value in low-income markets.

These references provide valuable insights, case studies, and frameworks for understanding and implementing social innovation in various contexts. They have played a significant role in shaping the field and inspiring further research and practice.

Last updated May 31, 2023

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