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Social Innovations are Coming

By Timo Hämäläinen of SITRA.

People have been talking about social innovations for well over a decade, although there is yet to be an actual breakthrough. – Social innovations will play a central role in terms of society's capacity for renewal, says Timo Hämäläinen, Leading Specialist at Sitra.

Social innovations can be examined as a concept from many perspectives. Hämäläinen believes that definitions and the field of action are in a constant state of flux as the challenges of society change, so it is impossible to give one concise interpretation.

  • One way of looking at this is based on social entrepreneurship, where the idea is to establish a social enterprise to solve a particular social problem, to do good in terms of society and to use any possible profit from the business operations to further develop the activities.

Finding potential

Another perspective of social innovations is linked to reforming social structures, regulation and public organisations.

  • This perspective does not come as close to the grassroots level as with social enterprises, although the objective is the same, i.e. producing a common good, says Hämäläinen.

There are still relatively few social enterprises in Finland but many good examples can be seen in Great Britain, for example. Hämäläinen is of the opinion that it has been difficult for the Finnish innovation system to address social innovations. No progress has been made in the matter since the debate originally started and social innovations have not taken centre stage in innovation policy.

  • The fact that social entrepreneurship is still in its infancy in Finland may also be the result of the public sector’s traditional and strong role. I believe, however, that there is a demand for social entrepreneurship and social innovations in Finland, too, in solving social challenges and problems.

Need for new information

Social innovations are closely related to Hämäläinen’s work. He has been promoting them since the start of the new millennium in Sitra’s innovative test projects and in a research project conducted around the same time in which the creation processes and impacts on society of social innovations were analysed by incorporating the perspectives of several different fields. Recently, these research results have been used in developing the EU social innovation research agenda.

  • In Finland, innovations have traditionally been referred to with respect to technological and commercial innovations. The aim of Sitra’s research project was to produce new information on how social practices, structures and institutions are reformed and how innovation processes can be actively supported through political decisions, says Hämäläinen.

The project studied reforms of regulatory systems, policies, organisational structures and operating models that improve society’s economic and social performance.

This article was originally published by The Good News from Finland on  05 May, 2011.