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Theoretical Implication of Open Social Innovation

In this article Amelie dives into the meaning of social innovation first and then explores how it relates to open social innovation.
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© Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Before exploring open social innovation practices, it is important to understand the context they arose in and its theoretical implications. For this we dive into the meaning of social innovation first and then explore how it relates to open social innovation.

Social Innovation

Social innovation has gained a lot of attention in the last two decades, since existing structures and policies have provided ineffective solutions to the pressing and complex problems of our times, such as climate change, global inequalities and pandemics (Murray et al., 2010).

To tackle these issues, the classic tools of siloed government policy on the one hand and market incentives on the other, have proven to be inadequate. While civil society has traditionally handled market failures, it lacks the capital, resources and skills to come up with promising, scalable ideas and solutions.

There is not a single definition of social innovation, its conceptualisation varies across sectors and disciplines. Examples of different understandings will be introduced in the next video. The common ground is that social innovations address social and environmental needs and issues through innovative means (Hannson & Björk, 2014).

Most definitions of social innovation include an outcome dimension (products, services, needs) and a process dimension (new social relations and processes). Murray et al. (2010) define social innovation as new ideas that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. This involves “new ways of doing, organizing, knowing and framing, which challenge, alter, and/or replace established formal and informal institutions in a specific socio-material context”.

Thus, social innovations create both better social outcomes and new processes and relationships that enhance society’s capacities to act (Hubert et al., 2010). Accordingly, social innovation is not about the problem it solves, but about the change it brings about.

Barriers of social innovation

Although there have been societal changes driven by social innovation, such as the development of microfinance, it can be questioned if the enthusiasm around social innovation is reconciled with a corresponding output. Often social innovations have not been transformative since the field is dominated by the narrative that individuals and organizations should develop the most effective solutions to societal problems (Mulgan, 2006, Chalmers, 2013).

What are the barriers preventing social transformation?

● Risk avoidance

Risk taking is discouraged and public managers or social entrepreneurs avoid failures and “keep projects in their own domains and silos, further preventing breakthrough innovation” (Jankel, 2011).

● Failure to address complexity of the issue

Social innovations often do not embrace the complex nature of social issues and rather work on the superficial symptomatic level (Antadze & Westley 2010; Chalmers, 2013). Established funding streams, clearly dividing between governmental functions and philanthropic/charity missions artificially separate social problems’ meaning, which makes it unlikely that truly systemic solutions will be achieved (Chalmers, 2013).

● Lack of adequate networks

Failing to connect with the right network can negatively affect both the social innovators’ motivation and access to resources (Lettice & Parekh, 2010). Networks play an important role in scaling social innovations (Murray et al., 2010). In fact, Mulgan et al. (2007) argue that “the absence of networks and collaborations is the main reason why social innovation projects fail”.

● Lack of experience and trust for collaboration

Social innovators are often skeptical about the commitment and effectiveness of the public sector. Public sector organizations can be hesitant to support new solutions without comprehensive evidence of their outcomes, and often lack the flexibility to adapt solutions to the process of scaling.

Overall, these hindrances reduce the transformative potential of social innovations. There is a growing body of literature that suggests that increased variety of knowledge enhances innovative capacities, reduces associated risks and increases the likelihood of disruptive innovation (Laursen & Salter, 2006; Leiponen & Helfat, 2010). Against this background, different scholars and practitioners have explored how openness can add value to social innovation and enhance its transformative potential.

Open Social Innovation

While in the business world, open innovation gained more and more traction in the recent decades, the social innovation world started to explore elements of openness as well in order to foster transformative change. According to the most prominent thinker behind the open innovation concept, Henry Chesbrough (2003), “open innovation means that valuable ideas can come from inside or outside the company and can go to market from inside or outside the company as well”. Thus, as you learned in the previous step of this course on Open Innovation, the core of the open innovation concept is formed by three archetypal processes:

outside-in processes: where knowledge flows come into a company from external sources, mainly from customers, suppliers and external partners.

inside-out processes: the ways companies reveal internal knowledge to the external environment, through for instance licenses and joint ventures

coupled processes: which involve the utilization of both inside-out and outside in processes and entail the cooperation with other organizations in strategic networks and facilitating knowledge creation and learning within the innovation system.

Open social innovation essentially means the application of these ideas and strategies to social innovation. A central element of open social innovation is collaboration, which makes it different from the agent-centric perspective of social innovation approaches (Cajaiba-Santana, 2013). Chalmers (2013) defines open social innovation as a “social innovation collectively constructed through interactions between socially innovative organizations and local communities’’.

An important aspect of open social innovation is the role of public participation and public engagement and exchange processes among citizens, governments and private sector organizations (Martins & Bermejo, 2015). Encouraging a collaborative approach in social innovation by opening a diverse set of actors can overcome common barriers of social innovation, mitigate some risks of the innovation process and better address complexity.

Role of ecosystems and networks in open social innovation

Innovation ecosystems and networks have the potential to bring different stakeholders together and foster interaction to co-create social innovation (Santoro et al., 2018)). These can take the form of participative platforms, such as connectors, incubators and intermediaries and can play a significant role in facilitating the collaborative process (Murray et al., 2010).

Networks can be a laboratory ground for collaboration and experimentation; connect entrepreneurs with the support they need to grow their innovations; and help others to diffuse innovations by developing networks and collaborations. Thus, networks can link the “bees”, creative individuals with ideas and energy, and the “trees”, big institutions with the power and money to make things happen to scale.

We will look now at how this can look in practice in the next chapters, where we will present the organization ProjectTogether that builds networks for open social innovation processes, incubates new solutions, and facilitates collaboration.

© This work by Amelie Riedesel is licensed under CC BY 4.0.
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