Social innovation – What is it?

Social innovation – What is it?

Author: Angela Di Benedetto, Consorzio Materahub (Italy)

Published on: 2021/12/13


The social economy and social innovation have for many years been areas of great interest to the European Union and to all those working to produce positive impacts in communities.

Indeed, economy and innovation are two distinct concepts, but they share a common factor: the quest for social impact.

Already more than ten years ago, the EU institutions felt the need to define a ‘European model’ of social innovation. A model that defines ‘social innovation’ as a set of approaches that emerge, experiment and operate to address urgent social needs – while creating new social relations and collaborations. These social relations and collaborations are particularly evident in the development of a ‘social economy’, i.e. economically relevant activities aimed – rather than profit – at making a positive impact on society and the community.


What are the characteristics of Social Innovation?

1) Better satisfaction of a collective need: the fundamental aim of social innovation is to find new ways of responding to a collective need in a better way than existing ways. It is closely linked to an acute analysis of the context and reference actors and to the best use of available assets (efficiency, but above all effectiveness);

2) Innovation of relations between economic and social actors, and of their roles: this concerns the development of ‘new’ relations as they are established between subjects otherwise not connected (at least not directly);

3) Technology: although not always a necessary and sufficient component of social innovation, technology represents a potentially very important lever (as in the case of the sharing economy);

(4) Best use of available goods/ resources: the “best use” may concern the increase in efficiency or productivity of the good/ resource in question, or in the absolute reduction of its use (key principles of the circular economy);

(5) Structural impact: social innovation is when it generates significant, long-term and widespread change. It means going beyond action in the most circumscribed and urgent cases, being more concerned with long-term impact;

(6) Economic strength: economic sustainability is a necessary feature of social innovation, at least to proceed in the more advanced stages of the project (dissemination of the new product/ service or practice, and structural change in the socio-economic system).


The two concepts of  Social innovation and economy are therefore closely linked.