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Prepared by Josef Hochgerner (Zentrum für Soziale Innovation, ZSI)

Historical Context

One hundred years ago in his seminal book 'Theory of economic development', Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter enunciated what is still considered to be the basics of innovation theory. More recently, in 1990, the Centre for Social Innovation (Zentrum für Soziale Innovation, ZSI) was founded. Since 2005, a private foundation (Unruhe Privatstiftung) has awarded the Social Innovation Prize “SozialMarie”, attracting up to 300 applications from Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia every year. Each year on the 1st of May, three main awards (divided into € 15,000, € 10,000 and € 5,000) as well as twelve “1,000-Euro awards“ are distributed with extensive media coverage. Despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that Austria has been a follower of innovation for a long time, social innovation has not become a key issue in national policy debate until recently. Nevertheless, many innovations have been introduced to stimulate social development throughout the 20th century. Beginning with social legislation following the First World War, and as a result of the system of social partnership (a major social innovation in itself) which had been informally established and consistently built upon after the Second World War, Austria has created social innovations at a time when this term did not yet exist, and when even the term “innovation” was hardly used as a principle to guide management operations. Up to the end of the 1970s Austria worked to develop a consolidated social system. This system nowadays is exposed to mounting stress, especially from 1990 onwards, yet the necessity for developing and implementing social innovations in response to this stress did not make significant early inroads.

Current growth of social innovation in all sectors of society

Now, the situation has changed. Social innovation is apparent in the civil sector of society, in industry, and in government. There is growing interest concerning social innovation in academia and research as well. In all sectors and sciences the definition of social innovation provided by ZSI is widely accepted and used: “Social innovations are new concepts and measures to resolve societal challenges, adopted and utilised by social groups concerned”. (ZSI-Discussion Paper 10, p. 2;) Scientific development in theory, conceptualisation and measurement of social innovation is taking major steps forward in Austria, both through events, and through integration with academic institutions. For instance, the development of a theory, concept, and assessment practice for social innovation will make a large international advance from September 19-21 in 2011 at a three-day conference entitled “Challenge Social Innovation”. Another major step consists in setting up the “European School of Social Innovation”, the first components of which will be launched 2012, including the study programme “Master of Social Innovation” (Danube University, Krems). Further, a doctoral study programme (“PhD of Social Innovation”) is in preparatory stages with the University of Vienna. In the business sector, interest in social innovation has become evident at least since 2008, when a study revealed a rather wide variety of social innovations occurring in for-profit enterprises (Kesselring/Leitner 2008). In 2010, the ‘Platform for innovation management’, in which major companies (such as Bene AG, Böhler-Uddeholm, Kapsch, Philips, Swarovski), research establishments (universities and universities of applied sciences), and agencies for promoting research and innovation collaborate, placed social innovation on the agenda of its Advisory Board. Interest associations such as the timber industry in Salzburg and Tyrol discuss social innovation and have devoted their 2011 Annual Conference to this topic. Civil society organisations remain the main—and most numerous—initiators of social innovations. Applications to “SozialMarie” overwhelmingly originated (80%) from the NGO- or Third Sector. These applicants have worked to address challenges such as work and unemployment, handicaps and disabilities, arts and cultural inclusion, migration and diversity, education and training (Diebäcker et al. 2009). In the state sector social innovation has gained great prominence with the publication of the “Strategy of the Federal Government for Research, Technology and Innovation“ (March 2011). Starting with a list of major challenges, it is established in the preface (p.2) that the “answer to these must be: strengthening of research, technology development and innovation. ... This requires ... a broad approach to innovation, encompassing not only technological innovations, but also covering civil, social and economic innovations.“ The fundamental message taken on board is that social innovations are necessary, important and effective from a social, as well as economic , perspective, and that they are required in all sectors of society.

Obstacles and weaknesses

There is still a long road to travel from the already relatively high awareness of social innovation to the systematic promotion and implementation of social innovations. On the side of business, enterprises mostly seem to be interested in social innovations as an additional means to boost competitiveness, thus considering social innovations secondary if it comes to the crunch. On the side of the public sector, governments' “Innovation Strategy” highlights social innovation, but indications of instruments and programmes to be established have yet to become apparent. If the term ‘social’ occurs in existing research and innovation programmes, these nevertheless aim primarily at promoting technology and economic growth – with the side expectation of also supporting social development. An explicit effort to motivate specifically social innovations does not yet appear to be in sight.