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Social Innovation


At the Forum we use EU:s general definition of social innovation:

“Social innovation means an activity, that is social both as to its ends and its means and in particular an activity which relates to the development and implementation of new ideas concerning products, services, practices and models, that simultaneously meets social needs and creates new social relationships or collaborations between public, civil society or private organisations, thereby benefiting society and boosting its capacity to act.” 

Social innovations are social in their ends, their primary purpose is to improve people’s well-being, inclusion, and empowerment, especially among those who are in a socially or economically vulnerable life situation. Social innovations are also social in their means, they are developed through collective processes with new social practices, relationships and structures. 


The novelty in social innovation can be understood in terms of more fair, sustainable or effective approaches and perspectives compared with existing solutions in society.  

A social innovation may be “new” in the sense of:

  • why it is created (e.g. that it is motivated by unmet needs),  
  • what is created (e.g. a new service or method),  
  • where it is created (e.g. that it is new to the specific area of activity), and 
  • who creates it (e.g. that beneficiaries are involved in novel ways). 

These types of newness are normative, they can be valued differently by different actors and in different contexts. Social innovation can be subject to conflicts and power struggles concerning which ends and means to prioritize. Such conflicts may regard the extent to which social innovation is allowed to truly transform existing systems, or only act as a “smoke screen” that buffers the consequences of a dismantled welfare state. 

Key characteristics of social innovation

Community involvement

A common characteristics of social innovation is community involvement, where people who are directly affected by the addressed societal challenge are engaged in the process. Insights into their perspectives and needs are crucial for ensuring the relevance, usefulness and effects of the process and results. Community involvement may be enhanced by civil society organizations – also called voluntary associations, non-profit organizations, etc. – through their established contacts, arenas and activities among stakeholders. 

Cross-sectorial co-creation

Another characteristic of social innovations is that they are often developed through cross-sectorial co-creation, where actors from the public sector, civil society, industry, academia, etc. jointly explore and tackle societal challenges. Challenges addressed are often so complex that they span over several societal sectors, policy/activity areas, etc. The lack of simple and final solutions to these challenges has motivated the labelling of them as “wicked problems”. Cross-sectoral co-creation is seldom easy, though, due to differing logics, interests and resources among the concerned sectors and actors. 

Part of an ecosystem

Research also acknowledges that social innovation is part of “ecosystems”, with reference to the environment of actors and framework conditions that affect the ability of new solutions to develop and make an impact. Such ecosystems encompass various societal structures, norms, functions, and roles, spanning from political systems to attitudes, business models, competencies, etc. The critical mass of actors and initiatives in an ecosystem can be seen as a prerequisite for single initiatives to prosper, by enabling cross-fertilization and a fertile environment. 


The social innovation process

Research shows that social innovation consists of several crucial elements and levels in the process of developing and establishing social innovations – including identification of societal challenges, mobilisation of actors and resources, idea generation, implementation, testing and scaling, and value creation. These do not always occur in chronological order but tend to be continuously repeated and interwoven.  

Elements of social innovation   
Levels or categories of social innovation