Submitted Successfully!
To reward your contribution, here is a gift for you: A free trial for our video production service.
Thank you for your contribution! You can also upload a video entry or images related to this topic.
Version Summary Created by Modification Content Size Created at Operation
1 This entry provides a brief history of social innovation, the major current debates on the subject, a definition as well as criteria for distinguishing social innovations from other forms of innovation. + 1026 word(s) 1026 2020-10-15 09:51:27 |
2 Changes in the overview of the entry. -3 word(s) 1023 2020-10-15 14:47:47 | |
3 format correct Meta information modification 1023 2020-10-20 11:33:18 | |
4 Corrected an error in the references section. Meta information modification 1023 2023-01-31 12:22:19 | |
5 Corrected one reference; clarified one text line. -6 word(s) 1017 2023-01-31 13:25:20 |

Video Upload Options

Do you have a full video?


Are you sure to Delete?
If you have any further questions, please contact Encyclopedia Editorial Office.
Guerreiro, A.; Pinto, H. Social Innovation. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 14 June 2024).
Guerreiro A, Pinto H. Social Innovation. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 14, 2024.
Guerreiro, André, Hugo Pinto. "Social Innovation" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 14, 2024).
Guerreiro, A., & Pinto, H. (2020, October 15). Social Innovation. In Encyclopedia.
Guerreiro, André and Hugo Pinto. "Social Innovation." Encyclopedia. Web. 15 October, 2020.
Social Innovation

This entry briefly recounts the history of social innovation and how it went from a descriptive term to a practice-based notion and, finally, to a scientific concept, while highlighting the major transformations it experienced. The text mentions some current debates, before presenting our own definition of social innovation. This definition incorporates contributions from other commonly used definitions while maintaining is operative potential. It also allows to clearly pinpoint what distinguishes social innovation from other types of innovation. The entry ends up with criteria for identifying social innovations.

Social innovation innovation social invention

1. The roots of a controversial concept

Social innovation is a term that attained a high level of popularity in the last decade, competing with globalization, interdisciplinarity or resilience for the title of breakout scientific concepts of our time. Its roots go back to the XIX century, when innovation meant progress, change or revolution – and seldom in a positive manner – being often associated with socialism and social reform ([1]). This began to change when sociologists at the turn of the century began using innovation and social invention on the subjects of progress, development and social change, thus giving it a positive connotation ([2];[3];[4];[5]). 

In the 1930s, innovation would become strictly associated with technology, making social invention and social innovation more popular terms in the following decades, still being used synonymously with social change, social progress and social reform, as means to cope with the negative effects of technological innovation ([6]) and how progress requires social as much as technological innovations and inventions. This was mostly due to the Great Depression and the growing awareness that industrial production and technological development, if unchecked, could have dire social consequences ([7];[8];[9]).

Social innovation would be used sparingly in the next decades, especially in the United States ([10];[11];[12]), becoming more popular in years following the Second World War, even if its usages were still largely descriptive. At the same time, social invention began to phase out and was slowly replaced by social innovation. But in the 70s, a proto-theory of social innovation was beginning to develop ([13];[14]). In the 70s, social innovation was beginning to gradually change. While up until then it was used more descriptively, some authors began developing a proto-theory of social innovation and social invention, paying more attention to what social innovation was and how it worked, which resulted in a slow transition from a mere descriptive term to a scientific notion, even if it was still a largely fragmented one ([15]).

This trend kept going until the 90s, when social innovation would attain popularity, first as a scientific concept ([16];[17]) and then as a recurring buzzword in political discourses and public policies, especially from the mid-2000s onwards ([18];[15]). From this point on, social innovation became exponentially more used in scientific articles, policy reports, political discourses, social sector debates and even business and management magazines and a formal theory began to develop.

2. Divisive issues in the study of social innovation

Over the last two decades, a great deal of research and countless publications contributed to a theory of social innovation that took inspiration from many fields, such as sociology, public policy, management, economics, environmental studies, regional studies, to name but a few. Many theoretical debates are still going regarding subjects like the role of the state in the promotion of social innovation ([19]), social innovation as a form of caring liberalism ([20]), top down vs. bottom up approaches ([21]), measurement of the impact of social innovation ([22];[23]) and the role social innovation plays in the promotion of sustainable, inclusive societies ([24]).

For all the knowledge produced, there are still two largely divisive issues pertaining social innovation ([25]): what makes social innovation fundamentally different from other forms of innovation and how can social innovation be defined in a manner that makes it clear what the “social” (in social innovation) means ([18]). These questions are important, as social innovation is still criticized for being a muddy concept that adds little to what was already known about innovation, with the added disadvantage of having been appropriated by political discourses and the subject of debate regarding to its usages, i.e. if social innovation is not merely a tool to further promote State cutbacks on public service and shift responsibility from public to private and third (or fourth) sector organizations ([26]).

While social innovation can be criticized for many of these aspects, its results and usefulness are undeniable, which by itself is reason enough for social innovation to be worthy of consideration in terms of social programmes and policies and theoretical frameworks for promoting sustainable, inclusive development.

3. A tentative definition

Our definition combines elements commonly found in most definitions, while stressing what makes social innovation different from other forms of innovation: Social innovation is an idea that deliberately attempts to better satisfy explicit or latent social needs and problems, resulting in new or improved capabilities, and in the transformation of social and power relations, aiming at social change and the establishment of new social practices that positively affect the lives of individuals.

We further add that for something to be considered a social innovation has to fulfil the following three key elements:

  • Social innovation must have been the result of a deliberate action and not a coincidence or by-product of something else ([27]). Social innovation loses its meaning if we can retroactively consider anything that improved the lives of individuals a social innovation, as many authors often do. Social innovation has to result from a planned action with the intent of producing socially innovative results;
  • Social innovation must address a specific social need or problem and cannot exist solely for the sake of doing something different, thus stressing the idea that social innovation exists as a tool to improve society and the lives of individuals ([28]).
  • The successful implementation of a social innovation must produce some degree of social change, taking on the form of new or restructure power and social relations (legislation, processes, practices, approaches, organizations, among other aspects), which lead to the capacitation or empowerment of individuals ([29]). If an action results in slightly better results, processes or procedures, that will hardly produce social change and induce a transformation of sorts. Social innovation must produce a transformative change ([30]).


  1. Godin, B.; Social Innovation: Utopias of Innovation from c.1830 to the Present. Project on the Intellectual History of Innovation Working Paper No. 11 2012, 1, 1-52.
  2. Comte, A.. Cours de Philosophie Positive tome V, 3rd edition; J. B. Baillière et Fils: Paris, 1869 [1840]; pp. N.A..
  3. Tarde, G.. Social Laws: An outline of Sociology; Batoche Books: Kitchener, 2000 [1899]; pp. NA.
  4. Du Bois, W.E.B.. The Negro Church; Atlanta University Press: Atlanta, 1903; pp. 1-209.
  5. Veblen, T.. The Theory of the Leisure Class; Oxford University Press: New York, 2007 [1899]; pp. NA.
  6. Todd, A.J.; Whither America?. Religious Education 1933, 28, 190-200.
  7. Weeks, A.D.; Will There Be an Age of Social Invention?. The scientific Monthly 1932, 35, 366-370.
  8. Merriam, C.E.; Government and Business. The Journal of Business of the University of Chicago 1933, 6, 181-190.
  9. Boardman, M.T.; The College President Calls it a Year. Journal of Higher Education 1936, 7, 287-295.
  10. McVoy, E.; Patterns of Diffusion in the United States. American Sociological Review 1940, 5, 219-227.
  11. Drucker, P.F.. Landmarks of Tomorrow: A Report on the New Post-Modern World; Harper & Brothers Publishers: New York, 1957; pp. 1-290.
  12. Zanden, J.W.V.; Resistance and Social Movements. Social Forces 1959, 37, 312-315.
  13. Taylor, J.B.; Introducing Social Innovation. The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science 1970, 6, 69-77.
  14. Hobbs, N.; Project Re-ED: From Demonstration Project to Nationwide Program. Peabody Journal of Education 1983, 60, 8-24.
  15. McGowan, K.; Westley, F. & Tjornbo, O.. The History of Social Innovation; McGowan, K.; Westley, F. & Tjornbo, O., Eds.; Edward Elgar Publishing: Cheltenham , 2017; pp. 1-17.
  16. Cooperrider, D. & Pasmore, W.; lobal Social Chance – A New Agenda for Social Science. Human Relations 1991, 44, 1037-1055.
  17. Henderson, H.; Social Innovation and Citizen Movements. Futures 1993, 25, 322-338.
  18. Pol, E. & Ville, S.; Social Innovation: Buzz word or enduring term?. The Journal of Socio-Economics 2009, 38, 878-885.
  19. Massey, A.; Johnston-Miller, K.; Governance: public governance to social innovation?. Policy and Politics 2016, 44, 663-675.
  20. Moulaert, F.; MacCallum, D.; Hillier, J.. Social Innovation: intuition, precept, concept, theory and practice; Moulaert, F., MacCallum, D., Mehmood, A., Hamdouch, A. , Eds.; Edward Elgar Publishing: Cheltenham, 2013; pp. 13-24.
  21. Moulaert, F.. Can Neighbourhoods Save the City?: Community Development and Social Innovation; Moulaert, F.; Swyngedouw, E.; Martinelli, F. & Gonzalez, S., Eds.; Routledge: Oxon, 2010; pp. 4-16.
  22. Antadze, N. & Westley, F.R.; Impact Metrics for Social Innovation: Barriers or Bridges to Radical Change?. Journal of Social Entrepreneurship 2012, 3, 133-150, 10.1080/19420676.2012.726005.
  23. Maduro, M..; Pasi, G.; Misuraca, G.. Social impact investment in the EU. Financing strategies and outcome oriented approaches for social policy innovation: narratives, experiences, and recommendations; Publications Office of the European Union: Luxembourg, 2018; pp. NA.
  24. Asenova, D. & Damianova, Z.. Atlas of Social Innovation; Howaldt, J.; Kaletka, C.; Schroder, A. & Zirngiebl, M., Eds.; SI Drive: Wien, 2019; pp. 44-47.
  25. Backhaus, J.; Genus, A.; Wittmayer, J.M.. Introduction: the nexus of Social Innovation, sustainable consumption and societal transformation; Backhaus, J., Genus, A., Lorek, S., Vadovics, E., Wittmayer, J.M. , Eds.; Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group: London, 2017; pp. 1-11.
  26. Guerreiro, J.A. & Pinto, H.. Social Innovation, Fourth Sector and the Commodification of the Welfare State: the Portuguese Experience; Sánchez-Hernández, M.I.; Carvalho, L.; Rego, C.; Lucas, M.R. & Backx-Noronha, A., Eds.; Springer: NA, 2021; pp. 59-85..
  27. Cajaiba-Santana, G.; Social innovation: Moving the field forward. A conceptual framework. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 2014, 82, 42-51, 10.1016/j.techfore.2013.05.008.
  28. Defining Social Innovation . The Young Foundation. Retrieved 2020-10-15
  29. Haxeltine, A.; Pel, B.; Wittmayer, J.; Dumitru, A.; Remp, R.; Avelino, F.; Building a middle-range theory of Transformative Social Innovation; theoretical pitfalls and methodological responses . European Public & Social Innovation Review 2017, 2, 59-77,
  30. Avelino, F.; Wittmayer, J.; Pel, B.; Weaver, P.; Dumitru, A.; Haxeltine, A.; Kemp, R.; Jørgensen, M.; Bauler, T.; Ruijsink, S.; et al.O'Riordan, T. Transformative social innovation and (dis)empowerment. Technological Forecasting & Social Change 2019, 145, 195-206.
Subjects: Sociology; Others
Contributors MDPI registered users' name will be linked to their SciProfiles pages. To register with us, please refer to : ,
View Times: 1.7K
Revisions: 5 times (View History)
Update Date: 31 Jan 2023
Video Production Service