Social innovation and service innovation: connecting the digital and the analogue

#Social innovation is expected to make large and increasing contributions to addressing societal challenges in areas such as climate change, inequality and poverty, #work and the #labour market, access to health and education, changing demographics (Howaldt, Kaletka, Schröder, & Zirngiebl, 2018). However, market-based solutions to #societal challenges do not emerge automatically. In between state and market failures, civil society and private households have frequently stepped in. Nevertheless, these shifts have led to frictions and gaps in citizens’ access to #services, service quality and providers’ abilities to deliver them – but also to opportunities to recreate, improve and democratise services. There is already some overlap since social innovation  borrows and translates a good range of methodologies and tools (such as design thinking) from service innovation (Deserti, Rizzo, & Cobanli, 2018). Social entrepreneurs and non-profit initiatives aim for sustainable business models (that may or may not be purely commercial). Such business models are highly likely to provide services of some kind. Public sector innovation also frequently models itself on services. Commercial services experiment and innovate with elements of “openness”, “sharing” and collaboration, both rhetorically and with “real” impact. Since services imply customers (or patients, citizens, students …), interaction and collaboration are in their DNA. So are somewhat fluid divisions of labour between providers and their clients. An influential stream of social science services research argues that services address complexity and provide solutions to their clients (Holtgrewe, 2015; Jacobsen, 2012). They are also capable of connecting the different modes of innovations and creating complementarities: “Whether the innovation is technological or non-technological, environmental or socio-economic, services play an active role in the production of innovations, not only those that cure or repair damage inflicted on the environment or on individuals’ socio-economic well-being but also those that are preventive and proactive (education of populations, training related to environmental norms or labels, etc.“ (Gallouj, Weber, Stare, & Rubalcaba, 2015). As societal challenges are being addressed by social innovations, a considerable proportion of these SIs will take the shape of services.

On the 20th of June, 2018, Centre for Social Innovation / ZSI hosted a Hot-Topic Workshop combining the perspectives of social and service innovation.

To explore the overlaps and interactions between #service and social innovation, the workshop brought together experts in social innovation, services and various specific application fields (such as municipalities, the public sector, technology, the arts, health and social services, and commercial services). It combined the perspectives of social and service innovation to further sharpen the picture of SI, explored its likely and unlikely connections with related fields of innovation, investigated instructive case studies and visions, and developed actual and potentially overlapping and complementary research interests.

What new research questions and topics emerge from the discussions?

Generally, there was consensus that current societal challenges need co-developed solutions. Strong emphasis was put on the need of interdisciplinary co-designing of service and/or SI, also beyond established stakeholders. For example, art & design practices may contribute to other domains (economy, healthcare for the elderly or “silver generation”, including ways of handling dementia, long-term unemployment, etc.). But the co-designing of service and/or social innovations is not an obvious undertaking. It requires empathy and shared understanding. Thus, methods are needed for ways to learn to “walk in others’ shoes”.

The question of “What does empowerment ‘really’ mean?” was also picked up again in this session. Power relations and dynamics need to be explored in cross-domain and quadruple helix approaches, in stakeholder and user empowerment, and in the emerging new configurations of social and service innovations in general.

The factor openness was stressed in the innovation process. This includes the attraction of new groups and new actors, and it should also be considered in a temporal and generational perspective, participants argued. Sustainable social innovation requires awareness raising and training for future actors in SI and connections between current and future users and their needs. This could for example take the form of involvement of school children in local social innovation projects, or considering ageing of different generations.

With regard to social theory, participants suggested to distinguish discourses and visions of social innovation that favour (potentially universalist or “modernist” “open” and discursive models of SI versus (potentially relativist) “commons” models that focus on community sovereignty. This might also address the “hidden values” carried in service and social innovation discourse: does, for example, “transport innovation” automatically imply speed? Are there actually “best” solutions for particular problems, or does a focus on the promises of “best practices” crowd out variety?

Ownership is another critical topic, especially in the light of the ownership structures of global platforms. What are possible approaches to the empowerment of global citizens? How could this clash with national state controls or cultural boundaries? Further, how can citizens’ awareness and decision rights be protected? What could be the points of contact (i.e. political moves) between global networks and local networks?

The future of work and the changes of work (due to digitalisation closely related to outsourcing and restructuring) would be another important future research topic that currently is largely detached from debates on social and service innovation. What new forms of relations/cooperation between employers and workers are thinkable? What would the implications be for current concepts of Corporate Social Responsibility? What new forms of collaborations among social partner organisations and with NGOs can we imagine?  .

Social innovation itself requires research activities related to assessment, impact measurement, rebound effects, and the ecosystem of SI. Questions were related to making connections of varied areas of expertise with social innovation and social innovation policy and ranged from the social-structural and institutional to the subjective:

On the social-structural level, questions were: How can societies profit economically from SI and how should these profits be distributed? How is social innovation embedded in the wider political economy: is it providing access to capital for social actors/citizens or to social life for capital? Does SI reduce or even reinforce social inequality, in terms of unequal, regionally or socially varied access to to services. On the level of institutions, projects and organisations, questions addressed both innovation pathways and policy: Are there pathways and narratives of “hybrid” social and service innovations, morphing into one another, or moving between the fields of civil society, public sector and business? How can citizen science be better related to policy? And, more generally, how can processes of mutual adjustment of regulatory environments and social /service innovation be investigated that made thus innovation grow? Indeed, an imminent research need appears to be an institutional and political economy perspective on social and service innovation that reflects beyond immediate policymaking and advocacy for SI.Finally, on the levels of individuals, groups and milieux of social innovation: How do social and service innovations shape the identities of both individuals and organisations? Looking at user experiences, how can each sense (touch, taste etc.) be involved in engaging users? A question to which artistic approaches can contribute in particular.Considering the relationship of digital social innovation and the analogue, the discussion of the innovation café was continued: the question was whether SI and digital innovations will be completely indistinguishable and overlapping in the future? Both a research and strategic question is if different types of digital tools and platforms give rise to different qualities of social / service innovation? Or in practice: if social innovations rely on commercial platforms such as Facebook or LinkedIn for internal communication, outreach and dissemination, in what way does this affect the outcomes, compared with the use of open-source, non-profit tools developed to specifically support SI in the DSI context? Are “open” models for technology, data, science etc. automatically “good” and favourable for social innovation? Or can new technologies create new mechanisms of social closure (for example blockchain technology)

What new modes of collaboration would be needed?

Participants agreed on the need for multi-stakeholder collaboration and user involvement in both service and social innovation. However, the funding structures of collaborative models do not always acknowledge the high “overhead” costs for managing and facilitating innovation among diverse actors and/or organisations. Addressing and balancing unequal power relations among actors also require attention and reflection. Experimental spaces and places exist, and more are needed for new modes of collaboration. In addition, to involve the wider public, traditional public spaces such as railway stations could be used. However, the more complex and inclusive social and service innovations get, and the more they respond to complex challenges and missions, the harder will they be to “measure” and to assess their impact. Here, methodologies to explore both the “known” and the “unknown” aspects need to be developed.

New approaches should be developed for including more users in the development of solutions. The Austrian project Bildünger was mentioned as a co-creation, co-owner education platform for education innovators that was established by the national education ministry, foundations and Ashoka as facilitators, with the aim to foster exchange and visibility among innovative education projects, build a community, provide some funding and management tools, and access to further support.

Trade unions are less visible in the context of social innovation, but both need and develop them, for example in approaching and organising “gig (platform) workers” or addressing new challenges of digitalisation and technological innovation at the workplace – these efforts could be considered social innovations complementary to technological and business ones.

At both ends, the explicit “innovators” and their ecosystem, and incumbent actors that aim to socially innovate themselves, connecting with “crowds” where appropriate and with newly emerging activism is both promising and challenging. Again, questions of existing and changing power relations will emerge and need to be reflected upon.


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Author(s): Ursula Holtgrewe & Maria Schwarz-Woelzl, Centre for Social Innovation, Vienna

Originally published: 17 Jan 2019, on

The SIC project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 693883