Social innovation

The glossary entries are the result of a collaborative process among OpenHeritage consortium partners and have undergone an internal review. However, they only express the perspective of the authors listed under each term, not of all partners. You can find information on the glossary production process and the full glossary here.

Martina Bosone
Institute for Research on Innovation and Services for Development of National Research Council (IRISS-CNR), Naples, Italy,

Antonia Gravagnuolo
Institute for Research on Innovation and Services for Development of National Research Council (IRISS-CNR), Naples, Italy;

Short definition

In general, social innovation is understood as the expression of certain ideas in products, services, or models, with the aim of proposing innovative activities and services to respond to the unmet needs of society (The Young Foundation 2012). However, the objective of the action is not always purely socially motivated, but rather fosters new relationships or collaborations between all those who have an interest in participating in the innovation process and contributing to its diffusion. Thus, it can arise from formal and informal partnerships between actors from different sectors, fostering the active collaboration and integration between different skills, derived from government, business, and the nonprofit world, and transforming traditional organizational and management models.

Therefore, social innovation is a way to transform innovative theoretical principles and research in a more pragmatic way to develop and deploy effective solutions to challenging social, economic, and environmental issues in support of social progress (PHI Foundation 2016).

Key discussions around the term

Social Innovation is relevant to civic initiatives of adaptive reuse of cultural heritage because it is “indispensable in maintaining social vitality, encouraging civilians’ enthusiasm to participate in social affairs, and helping form a sense of self-governance” (Keping 2012).

Social Innovation thus contributes to the betterment of individuals and communities. In the longer term and if it is carried out by sufficiently influential social movements, Social Innovation can be a source of social transformation and an engine of change. Social Innovation must be considered a strategic resource for all countries that want to think about the development of society in a new way. Turning to Social Innovation today is a concrete way to respond to the difficulties of the moment and try to solve some of the problems of our society”(PHI Foundation 2016).

Apparently, social innovation has gained and retained a lot of interest throughout the years. Policymakers, academics and researchers, foundations and organizations, and generally individuals share a mutual interest in expanding their knowledge to address social issues.

In the European scenario, many culture-led urban regeneration experiences are highlighting the importance of multi-stakeholder cooperation to elaborate a common development vision based on the generation and regeneration of cultural values through innovative approaches. The diffusion of new business models, collaborative governance, and impact financing is demonstrating the great potential of systemic approaches and integrated methodologies (European Commission 2014; Fusco Girard and Cerreta 2001) to identify this latent capacity of innovation to reactivate and re-generate cultural heritage and cultural knowledge production. In this perspective, it is necessary to take into account some challenges for the success and sustainability of such initiatives, such as questions related to their actual capacity to interpret and respond to local demand for economic, cultural, and social services, or how and whether these new forms of partnership have transformed informal initiatives into economically sustainable activities (Daldanise, Oppido, and Vellecco 2018).

Experiences to date clearly demonstrate that when different actors cooperate synergistically and their interests converge towards the common good, it is possible to support and implement cultural and social innovation. In the case of cultural heritage, this is transformed into the ability to give new life to degraded, abandoned, or under-used spaces’ also creating new job opportunities and new forms of social inclusion (Fusco Girard 2018; 2021). Despite the interest and the increasing consideration of the term, there is a growing need for shared or common definitions of social innovation, as its interpretation changes depending on the point of view (Balamatsias 2018):

  • pragmatic approach: social innovation as “innovative activities and services that are motivated by the goal of meeting a social need and that are predominantly developed and diffused through organizations whose primary purposes are social” (Schwarz et al. 2010);
  • systemic approach: social innovation as a “complex process through which new products, processes or programs are introduced, leading to a deep change in daily routines, resources’ streams, power relations or values within the system affected by the innovation” (Westley and Antadze 2010);
  • managerial stance: social innovation as a “new solution to a social problem which is more effective, efficient, sustainable or fairer compared to existing solutions, and which generates value primarily for society instead of single individuals or organizations” (Phills, Deiglmeier, and Miller 2008);
  • critical approach: social innovation is conceived as a process of “empowerment and political mobilization” targeting a bottom-up transformation of the functioning of a social system, in terms of stakeholders and in terms of distribution of material and immaterial resources (MacCallum et al. 2012);
  • economic approach: social innovation defined as “conceptual, process or product change, organizational change and changes in financing, and new relationships with stakeholders and territories” (Noya 2009);
  • comparative approach: social innovation perceived as being “distinctive both in its outcomes and in its relationships, in the new forms of cooperation and collaboration that it brings. As a result, the processes, metrics, models and methods used in innovation in the commercial or technological fields, for example, are not always directly transferable to the social economy” (Caulier-grice, Mulgan, and Murray 2010);
  • universal approach: social innovations are defined as “new solutions (products, services, models, markets, processes etc.) that simultaneously meet a social need (more effectively than existing solutions) and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources. In other words, social innovations are both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act.” (The Young Foundation 2012).

Reference list

Balamatsias, G. 2018. “Social Innovation. 8 Most Popular Definitions.” Social Innovation Academy. 2018.

Caulier-grice, Julie, Geoff Mulgan, and Robin Murray. 2010. “The Open Book of Social Innovations. Social Innovator Series: Ways to Design, Develop and Grow Social Innovations.” The Young Foundation 30 (8).

Daldanise, Gaia, Stefania Oppido, and Immacolata Vellecco. 2018. “Creative Adaptive Reuse of Cultural Heritage for Urban Regeneration.” Urbanistica Informazioni 278 s.i. (Special Issue): 6–9.

European Commission. 2014. “Towards an Integrated Approach to Cultural Heritage for Europe.” Bruxelles.

Fusco Girard, Luigi. 2018. “Discourse of Professor Luigi Fusco Girard at the European Parliament High-Level European Parliament Conference ‘Cul-Tural Heritage in Europe: Linking Past and Future.’” In European Parliament Conference “Cultural Heritage in Europe: Linking Past and Future.”

Fusco Girard, Luigi.  2021. “The Circular Economy in Transforming a Died Heritage Site into a Living Ecosystem, to Be Managed as a Complex Adaptive Organism.” Aestimum 77: 145–80.

Fusco Girard, Luigi, and Maria Cerreta. 2001. “Il Patrimonio Culturale: Strategie Di Conservazione Integrata e Valutazioni.” Economia Della Cultura, Rivista Trimestrale Dell’Associazione per l’Economia Della Cultura 2: 175–86.

Keping, Yu. 2012. “No TitleGrowing Importance of Social Innovation.” China Daily, 2012.

MacCallum, Diana, Frank Moulaert, Jean Hillier, and Serena Vicari Haddock. 2012. Social Innovation and Territorial Development. Social Innovation and Territorial Development.

Noya, A. 2009. “Transforming Innovation to Address Social Challenges.” OECD. Paris.

PHI Foundation. 2016. “Cos’è La ‘Social Innovation’?” 2016.

Phills, James A, Kriss Deiglmeier, and Dale T Miller. 2008. “Rediscovering Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review 6 (4).

Schwarz, Michael, Geoff Mulgan, Simon Tucker, Rushanara Ali, and Ben Sanders. 2010. “Social Innovation: What Is It, Why It Matters and How It Can Be Accelerated.” Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, no. May.

The Young Foundation. 2012. “Social Innovation Overview: A Deliverable of the Project: ‘The Theoretical, Empirical and Policy Foundations for Building Social Innovation in Europe’ (TEPSIE), European Commission – 7 Th Framework Programme.” Proyecto TEPSIE. Brussels.

Westley, Frances, and Nino Antadze. 2010. “Making a Difference: Strategies for Scaling Social Innovation for Greater Impact.” Innovation Journal 15 (2).