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Social Innovation and Technological Innovation: Antagonistic or Complementary Approaches?

Dmitri Domanski, Christopher Graetz and Christoph Kaletka, TU Dortmund University

On 13 June, TU Dortmund University’s Social Research Centre (sfs) hosted a Hot Topic Workshop seeking to better understand the relationship between social and technological innovations. The workshop, organised within the framework of the Social Innovation Community project, featured experts from different areas, such as the steel industry, the collaborative economy and the maker community.

Participants discussed both the relevance of #socialinnovation for technological development and, subsequently, the relevance of technologies for social innovation. Based on these two perspectives, the insights of the group can be summarised as follows:

Some technological developments in industry are dedicated to tackle societal #challenges. With societal targets also playing an increasingly important role, social innovation is not exclusively seen as an enabler of technological innovation. An important example is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, where industry shows deployment for a major societal challenge with the support of politics. In all industries, the “human factor” is not always included in internal development and innovation processes. Nowadays, it is increasingly regarded as an important factor to improve both quality and revenues of the company. Still, there is a gap between social and technological innovation in companies, which is getting smaller. Furthermore, a possibility to reorganise the (social) processes of technological production is Open Innovation, where actors from outside are included into innovation processes. Concerns were raised regarding the protection of results as well as the concrete areas where to include Open Innovation. Generally, a different mindset within the companies is necessary. In addition, social innovation is considered a tool for establishing better connections between the company, its workforce and the surrounding actors (as a form of #CSR). Such examples show a different understanding of social innovation in the economic and other societal sectors, which put a stronger emphasis on the deliberation of common goals and cross-sectoral cooperation to achieve these.

Furthermore, the importance of technology for social innovations as a fosterer or enabler was discussed. Experiences from project management strategies for developing new technologies can support the success of social innovation. A better embedding of technological developments within social innovation processes is of high relevance under a new innovation paradigm going beyond the pure technological innovation perspective. Also, platforms can be seen as new intermediaries which enable communication interaction respectively. Some types of social innovation can benefit from these and can reduce costs, time and effort. At the same time, the impacts of social innovations are growing thanks to the networks linked to the platforms. In the workshop, three clusters of collaborative platforms were distinguished: Bottom-up civic participation and collective action platforms, P2P exchange and marketplaces, and knowledge sharing and collaborative making.

For the latter aspect, the participants argued about the potential of collaborative making as an innovative technology development strategy rooted in civil society. Fostered by technological innovations, this movement does also create social value for a variety of groups, including an empowering and inclusive character for people with disabilities.

During the final discussion of the workshop, ideas and thoughts were summarised about the relationship between technological and social innovation. Generally, the combination of both types of innovation is considered to be a win-win situation. Both can benefit from each other and there are fewer contradictions than considered. At the same time, there are still many open questions regarding the integration of social and technological innovations. Despite its relevance, it remains a largely unexplored research topic.

A future event addressing the relationship between social and technological innovation is the research conference “Social Innovation and Socio-#Digital Transformation”, organised by the European School of Social Innovation (ESSI). It will take place in Dortmund on the 28th and 29th of October 2019.