Back to top

Organizing Structures that Support International Innovation

This piece is the second part of Paul Hobraft's exploration of the international and post-national environments for innovation generation. 

Follow the link to read Part I

Part II

In order to add ‘fuel’ to the discussions around how to organize the generation and dissemination of social innovations, I will now briefly look at some alternative organizing structures which move beyond the national borders which currently structure the creation and flow of new ideas. Choosing the ‘appropriate’ structure(s) can be vital to gaining real momentum and participation in tackling social challenges.

Firstly should we travel down the National (Social) Innovation System route?

The concept of an ‘innovation system’, which first appeared in the beginning of the 1990s has been widely used and has become an appealing framework for policy makers, such that its advocates have been consider this as the ‘epistemic community’ (Sharif, 2006).

I’m sure in the early days of structuring innovation it had significant organizing value, perhaps it still does, but it constrains much with today’s greater recognition that innovation, especially social issues, have a certain uncontainable nature, they simply flow and move or stay resolutely ‘locked’ in one place. Over the last thirty to forty years our understanding of innovation has developed in our understanding and national systems seem rigid, somewhat dated structures and out of place for global problems or local solutions with a greater connected society and world.

Working in cluster initiatives does seem to offer greater value.

It is recognised that proximity improves the effectiveness of collaboration and that because there is regional variations in the effectiveness of networks and intermediary organisations the closer we get to where the problem lies, the better we can work on finding the appropriate solution. A cluster is a sort of geographical concentrate, where interconnected parties, often specialised, that classically derive from proximity and gain from this powerful set of synergies. These are never national. I like the depth of understanding of how to construct, what to expect and what can limit clusters, they have a reasonable track record of success. They can be a powerful way to organise local and even regional specific projects.

Urban Economies

‘Urbanisation economies’, which occur when ideas and knowledge ‘jump’ across, are often generating the unexpected, radical innovation outcomes—it seems to have some interesting aspects to explore for social innovation. The strengthening of these uniting local bodies, which will bring together local authorities, businesses, universities and local communities with the aim of resolving local sector issues, might play a crucial role in nurturing and seeking prosperity in the coming years. Can these be managed or represented on National levels? I don’t think so, why?

There are significant regional disparities, taking the UK for example, in terms of employment, productivity and innovation and clearly we see this is social issues. National policies are not granular enough to deal with the differences you will find.

There is a body of literature that emphasises the growth-enhancing role of innovation and argues that most of the regional divergence in growth patterns can be attributed to the localised and intrinsically path-dependent nature of the innovation process, which (can) hamper the diffusion of the benefits and this has its scaling issues.  Scaling up from a great local idea is one of the biggest issues in social innovations to find broad identified solutions so as to be able to recognize those than can, those that can’t. We need to know what practices might be different that can be identified and put into place to manage social innovation in urban approaches?

Regional diversity promotes regional innovation systems

Regional structures often reflect strong historical perspectives, traditional cultures, local dialects, and varied political systems. Each has a different make up that reflects that regional difference and innovation, both social and commercial, needs to play to their particular strengths but also recognize some of the inherent weaknesses that sometimes get ignored. Some regions have strong autonomy (Barcelona and the Catalan province) whereas others are (overly) dependent on central government (the UK for example still is highly centralised).  In many parts of Europe these regions, based more on their history, go across artificial national borders. This often promotes strong self-interest, often where the louder voices reside.  Often compelling stories might not reflect the reality of the situation but that strong sense of identity, combined with the means, can resolve many social problems given the right organizing structures to allow this to happen.

Regions have different pace, different priorities and needs

How often does it seem as one new policy strategy is launched, previous strategies have not even been implemented or certainly fully evaluated, for their impact. This ‘reactive’, often prompted by new political management based on election change, simply damages innovation, especially for social issues. One policy of promoting social networks (youth clubs in deprived areas) gets shut down by the incoming partly and that has social consequences and social ills. Knock-on effects are often never fully evaluated, often ignored due to expediency

Regions often don’t get the chance to settle and embed an idea or concept before they are forced to try something different. Politicians have a time horizon different from the social problems, often built up over longer time.  What is clearly required is more intelligent evolution, so regional leadership is built far more as ‘fit for purpose’ and avoiding constant change which absorbs enormous amounts of energy. What nation structures should do is not intervene as much and divest clear power to regional structures. Curing social ills needs a greater sense of purpose and patience than often permitted and it certainly needs to be as close to the social ‘ill’ it is trying to resolve.

Community Innovation Structures

At the community or local level there is the opportunity to truly "innovate", in the form of experimentation, piloting, exploring options for solving social challenges. The Community Innovation System (CIS) requires access to advanced levels of information and skilled knowledge workers for assimilating and implementing the knowledge being identified. At the community level such networks are primarily the basis for social inclusion and adhesion.  In fact, it is precisely these types of connections which have provided the platform for some of the most successful and innovative of local communities through the integrated use of local social networks as networks for managing local production and distribution in what is generally referred to as “flexible networks”.  Is this one of the most appropriate structures for social innovation?

The need for cross-border collaboration activities based on platform themes is also necessary.

Surely we have this unique opportunity in organising social innovation differently than other innovation activity? Through ‘emerging’ clarity at local and regional level of the issues to be tackled and then these are brought through to those at an organizing theme level in the EU would  give greater potential for exploring these common issues at EU cross border level? Those at the international structure levels would be looking for potential in scale and ability to transfer through as one of their primary tasks of regional coordination.

This themed platform management might have a different impact than the present ways innovation is presently managed. The really big difference for social innovation is it is not so caught up in the different types of innovation. We focus more on ‘application innovation.’ Understanding social innovation differences can significantly facilitate platform and cross-border design.

National bodies can then have an effective monitoring (only) system in place. National remits are actively investing in focusing upon developing capability building activities that are encouraged to ‘move and flow’ as and where it is needed. There are clear social skills needing to be developed and replicated. National organization structures supplements more and are not the determining party, this is based locally or regionally, left to the bodies closest to the problems to manage and resolve.

Local and Regional SI feeds into Cross-border for ‘stocks and flows’.

The world is interlinked and interdependent more than ever. Mobility of ideas and solutions that are needed can openly flow across borders through the use of technology. We must reduce the ‘filtering and often myopia’ that can happen when it arrives from one country to another.

Innovation is geographically dispersed but we seek the ‘sticky knowledge’- the ‘know-how’ far more today than the ‘know what’-that is needed to be freshly applied.  Faster connectively and greater movement of skills and knowledge is actually changing much. The centres of excellence that have been previously constructed on national or issue related topics are contracting and we need to open up to this concentration on knowledge that resides in less places but in more of a global domain, not within national borders.

Also the importance of absorptive capacity comes more into play here when considering the mechanisms for knowledge transmission within a network of firms and other institutions. We have to consider the process of acquisition, assimilation, transformation and exploitation of knowledge as all dimensions of absorptive capacity. This need to understand the effect of absorptive capacity and how it can flow is important to master within this ‘stock and flow’need.

Forming a EU and also a global network of knowledge on social innovation

Formal, closed networks confined to one individual geographical area are in retreat, knowledge is breaking these down thankfully. In its place we need more ‘knowledge collection’ points. This calls for a new social pathway- strong local social networks that strive to challenge conformity and path dependence for social good that feed in their knowledge and learning into these collection points for the use of others. The people managing this will be more technically savvy, have cognitive skills, different attitudes and close identification with social innovation issues that are constantly looking for solutions that are resolving tough problems and absolutely resolute in sharing these with others to make these knowledge connection points.

International knowledge networks are paramount to social innovation, more so than National organization. The importance is identification around social issues and global challenges and organizing around these have surely a higher potential for social impact than traditional national organizing ones that have a potentially narrower perspective.

There is also a real need for ‘Orchestral leadership’ for social innovation.

Networks, knowledge collection points need orchestrating. They need organizing around the appropriate global, regional and local social challenge that has commonality of purpose.
Appropriate scale comes into play here- the effective adaptation from a local context, extending that feeling of ownership, identification and attempting to transfer and achieve replication but with the right modification to the local conditions. This ability is needed to be learnt, it is a skill that is much in need.

Understanding the aspects that are locally grown and the ones that provide ‘sticky knowledge’- more generic and transferable -need developing in recognition and amplification. It is recognizing the acceleration process drawn from evidence-based learning that requires orchestration. 

There is real needs for more systematic ‘capturing’ structures that consolidate evidence base that works and being able to break this down into the transferrable factors that allow the scaling effect to take hold.

Social innovation solutions faces particular challenges, they often defy straightforward problem solution and to explore all possibilities, they need to have access to cross border knowledge of what is working, wherever in the world to see if can be applied. This needs to be outside political cycles

Collaborative Open Innovation

The value in any structures and flows is in their openness and the ability to ‘tap into’ the appropriate need, be this from a top down perspective or more importantly from a local, bottom up view. There are three critical needs to address in any structure where knowledge flows for social innovation.

Firstly, whatever is worked upon needs knowing about, simply sharing, just ensuring to find the time to let people know what you are doing on SI. 

Secondly, the ability to understand this sharing also needs to provide the mechanics, so the potential to see if it can be applied elsewhere and appropriately scaled as this is really critical to tackling multiple points where this might also be applicable.
Thirdly, the ability to ‘talk’ to each other, to relate, to share, to draw from the richness of a social community that is working hard to tackle some of our social ills.

These knowledge collection points I mentioned earlier needs a robust, well structured platform where collaborative and open social innovation can be seen shared and the lessons absorbed. Hence why I believe absorptive capacity is vital to be built into this.

The Value and Potential of Amplification Work

Lastly, a few words on amplification- something emerging from work in the US and in the UK. The clear need in social innovation is the richness and diversity that can be called upon to see alternatives but to also see commonality. Diversity in groups, local, regional and cross-border, can yield superior outcomes- highly social, highly collective, highly improvisational and highly augmented to build social capital. The value of this amplified work presently going on has a growing place within the Social Innovation mix of organization structures and skill sets. We need to revisit amplification and its place for social innovation.

My conclusion

Any innovation exchange which aims to understand what works and what doesn’t in social innovation, needs organizing frameworks.  I, for one, am not convinced that a call for National Partners for the SIE to represent innovation within a region to the European community is right. It needs some more thinking, drawing from past innovation structures that have constrained innovation.

We need to be reflective and careful. Otherwise we lock ourselves into a self-fulfilling equilibriums, based more on the past, that lower that ideal innovation organising set of structures far more made possible with today’s technology. We have a lot of insights from some rich innovation literature available to us to delve into and seek an emerging appropriate application to managing and organizing social innovation.

Paul Hobcraft runs Agility Innovation Specialists; an advisory business that focuses 100% on stimulating sound innovation practice. Agility Innovation Specialists helps build innovation capability and capacity for organisations, teams and individuals. I research topics that relate to innovation for the future, applying what we learn to further develop organizations core innovation activity, offer appropriate advice on tools, techniques and frameworks so clients can achieve positive and sustaining results from their innovating activities. I write a blog, called “Building the Innovation DNA”  under which ‘allows’ me to move across the broad spectrum of innovation to try to make connections, to prompt different thinking and offer some (highly) personal views.

Web site: and