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An analysis of social innovation discourses in Europe

Elisabeta G. Ilie and Roel During


Discussions around social innovation make the heads of the governmental and organisational agendas nowadays. The focus of these discussions is to address societal challenges through the instrumentality of policies, programmes and projects that enhance the quality of life and social cohesion through innovative social processes. The institutions and agents that theorise, stimulate and implement social innovation function according to the principles of social structures. The present paper argues that this specific operational mode limits the understanding, as well as the performance of social innovation. The existing related body of literature addresses the questions of what, where and who makes social innovation happen, but overlooks the issue of how it is initiated it and why it happens at all. For this reason, we propose post-structuralism as a critical perspective on social innovation which deals less with the accountability of the process and more with acknowledging the multitude of innovation sources starting from individuals and groups in the community and a broader field of practice.

The concept of social innovation, also referred to as SI in the expert body of literature, finds its roots in the long tradition of innovation as a driver of competitiveness of institutions and regions. This paper captures the on-going debate on defining the concept of innovation in the social sphere as change which is social both in its goal and means. We discuss here the existing theories on products and processes of SI (from services to systemic change) and identify flaws and loose ends which lead the way to new perspectives of scientific enquiry and empirical research in the field.

Starting with technological, economic and, later on, organisational innovation, the related scientific theory developed on the inter-dependency between market demand, governmental decision-making and scientific research. This triad is at the same time a manifestation and an expression of the power relations in today’s capitalist society. This triple bidirectional relationship between the state (governance), the market (social enterprise) and science (academic enquiry) constitutes the base on which this study is founded. Processes of social innovation are highly dependent on social structures and their understanding of societal challenges and change. Later on, we will briefly outline the main features of these relations of power that shape the performance stage of social innovation. For the time being, for the purpose of this paper, we underline the fact that the theory of social innovation finds its premises and definitions in the structures of the western world (Moulaert et al., 2005, p. 4). It is within the existing economic, political and cultural contexts here that the concept of SI emerges as a new orientation and finds its sense and purpose. First, the expanding economic crisis called for immediate effective solutions that could reverberate fast in the state of the economy and that of the society so that it could be reproduced and implemented elsewhere; what this elsewhere actually refers to, it is hard to say. The discussion on social innovation is mainly contained within the boundaries of Northern America, Canada and Europe. Reclaiming their role as major economic powers worldwide, the western countries look for solutions not only to save their own economies, but also to preserve their influence at a global level. Projects on the DESIS website (the network for design schools and institutions promoting social innovation and sustainability) show that universities and research centres in Asia, for example, also take great interest in matters related to innovation, but this interest rarely breaks out of the academic circles. The western culture of a democratic society, in which principles of vertical and horizontal collaboration are highly valued, provides a propitious environment for discussions of acting for and with the community towards development and a higher quality of life.

The present paper identifies existing discourses on social innovation and analyses them in the context of the structures that both define and use them. As Moulaert and Hamdouch (2006) stress, the literature on social innovation deals mainly with agents (such as policy and strategy intermediaries, business services, public research institutions, universities), their motivations and roles. Nevertheless, it offers insufficient information on their behaviour. Aiming to address this gap in knowledge, we ask a twofold question: why does social innovation take place and how does it happen? By relating social innovation to concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘networks’, we will look into how innovation is understood and implemented at the moment and what does this mean for the performance of the process itself. By challenging current SI discourses and definitions, we will explore a different analysis of social innovation – from a post-structuralism point of view. By advocating for such an approach, we believe that the interpretations which it involves enrich the existing perspectives on SI and encourage discussions on a diversity of process mechanisms and outputs that add greatly to the field of social innovation.

14 Feb 2012