How Social Innovation ‘Came To Be’: Tracing The Evolution Of A Contested Concept

by Asst. Prof. Dr. Noorseha Ayob , Prof. Dr. Simon Teasdale and Kylie Fagan

Published online by Cambridge University Press, (2016)


Social innovation is a contested concept with multiple meanings that have implications beyond academia. It is not a new term – its sociological heritage can be dated to the late nineteenth century.

However, until the twenty-first century the concept was sparsely utilised, and, despite its current popularity among policy makers in Europe and the United States, remains largely ignored by social policy researchers. Through bibliometric analysis we identify the most influential articles on social innovation and explore how these have conceptualised the term. We show that over time social innovation has taken on a set of meanings far removed from its sociological roots.

In particular we identify a weak tradition that sees social innovation as any increase in aggregate individual utility arising from an innovation, and a strong tradition that focuses on the process of collaboration between different groups and the restructuring of power relations. We conclude by outlining implications for social policy research.

Introduction In recent years the concept of social innovation has become central to policy debates at national and supranational levels. In the United States, President Obama established the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation within the White House in 2009 ostensibly to engage citizens and civil society to find new ways to solve social problems. At the European level, social innovation cuts across a range of policy areas and was developed under the Social Innovation Initiative with the aim of mainstreaming social innovation policies through the Horizon 2020 strategic framework for research and innovation (Massey and Johnston-Miller, 2014).

Academic research precedes the policy interest in social innovation. Major universities including Stanford, Duke, Brown, Oxford and Cambridge have established social innovation research centres, notably in Business Schools. Indeed much of the academic literature on social innovation is published in.

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