Back to top


There is no single accepted definition of social innovation in the UK. The one opted for in the Open Book of Social Innovation is as follows – ‘new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations.’ This emphasises innovation, which leaves behind a stronger capacity for society to act.

The UK has an estimated £24 billion social enterprise industry and has come to be regarded as a global leader in this field. In the last 15 years, more than £350 million of public money has been used to fund social entrepreneurship, charity capacity building and social ventures.  Academic institutions are also taking a more active interest in social innovation whilst think tanks continue to help bridge the gap between the research community and policy makers. 

Social innovation is time and context specific. That means it can mean different things in different context. What might not seem innovative in one country, may be ground breaking in another. The political and cultural background is important to understand. There are also a wide variety of organisations involved in this field, each have different perspectives. So, the purpose of this page is to demonstrate a variety of views on what social innovation means to different kinds of organisations in UK.

The voices from the UK:

In 2011, Robert Patrick from the Young Foundation provided a profile on what social innovation looked like in the UK at the time. The profile further elaborates UK as a global leader of social enterprises:

"Social enterprises and social ventures in the UK are supported by a growing industry of intermediaries – social venture funds, incubators, service designers, impact monitoring agencies, specialist recruitment consultancies, and network providers). Academic institutions are now taking a more active interest in social innovation (e.g. Oxford UniversityNorthumbria University,Glasgow Caledonian University) whilst think tanks continue to help bridge the gap between the research community and policy makers. Another group of players in this space are arms length or spin off bodies which have the benefit of being independent of Government whilst maintaining a close relationship (e.g. NESTAInnovation Unit). There are also a host of agencies using design methods to advance social innovation (e.g. IDEOThinkpublic)."

It also continues to note the role of public sector: "Innovation does take place to some degree throughout the public sector with some of the most successful public innovation resulting from collaboration, especially in areas like procurement. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has responsibility for innovation as well as business regulation and support, higher education, and science. Last year BIS opened up a new innovation space at their headquarters and created a website dedicated to public sector innovation. However, whilst Government spends a lot on research and development, it is much more inconsistent when it comes to innovation in fields like criminal justice or housing."

Read the full profile here.

In 2015, Europe Tomorrow created a profile on Norway, based on their travels across Europe to identify and test the best social and environmental innovations in order to promote their replication and scaling. In this profile, they identified new financial mechanisms growing fast in the UK:

  • Big Society Capital: invests is a range of social investment finance intermediaries (SIFIs), which are organisations that provide appropriate and affordable finance and support to social sector organisations that are tackling some of our most intractable social problems
  • Global Innovation Fund: invests in social innovations that aim to improve the lives and opportunities of millions of people in the developing world. Through their grants and risk capital, they support breakthrough solutions to global development challenges from social enterprises, for-profit firms, non-profit organisations, researchers, and government agencies.

They also noted the existence of many transitional and self-sufficient territories in the UK: 

  • BedZED challenges conventional approaches to housing by tackling sustainability in every area from the outset. It slashes heat, electricity and water demand, eliminating the need for space heating and reducing water consumption by a third. It has designed facilities and services that make it easy to reduce waste to landfill, recycle waste and reduce car use.
  • CAT is an education and visitor centre demonstrating practical solutions for sustainability. They cover all aspects of green living: environmental building, eco-sanitation, woodland management, renewable energy, energy efficiency and organic growing.

Read in more detail on their website here.