SI Series 11: Five Key Elements of Social Innovation

It is useful to look at the elements of what makes up social innovation.  As described by The Young Foundation, there are five key elements (Caulier-Grice, Davies, Patrick & Norman, 2012) (see Fig. 1).

The first is novelty, which describes the uniqueness of the invention of the idea, product or process of the innovation. In what novel way will the field or domain be changed? Perceived novelty is the notion that the innovation doesn’t have to be necessarily original or a completely new way, rather that it is novel to the context of the field, domain or system that the innovation is being applied to. The second is implementation, or, how well suited the novel idea is to actually be implemented into the field, domain or system. Will it be adaptable and have durability and broad impact? Some innovations will be scaled and adopted beyond its immediate context. The next is need, which describes a systemic need to be met. It is clear from the science, for example, that the cause of climate change needs to be changed (Stern, 2007). Social innovation meets this need with novel products, processes and programs, from the micro to the macro in scale, to be implemented in social-environmental systems. The fourth is effectiveness, where the social innovation is more effective than the traditional solutions applied to the problem. In doing so, it should have a measurable improvement, including quality, user satisfaction, economic implications, and rates of adoption, wellbeing or social capital. The last is enhancement, which suggests that social innovation enhances society’s capacity to act, by “creating new roles and relationships, developing assets and capabilities and /or better using assets and resources; [it] will often entail changes in social relations, especially in terms of governance, and increase the participation of vulnerable, marginalized and/or underrepresented groups” (Caulier-Grice et al., 2012, p. 20).

5 elements of SI

Figure 1. Five key elements, and common features, of social innovation. Taken from Caulier-Grice et al. (2012).

  This last point deserves emphasis. Social innovation not only gives opportunity to underrepresented groups, but underrepresented groups bring opportunities to social innovation. It has been said, that the vulnerable are not the problem of sustainability, but the answer to it. Strategies of survival by underrepresented groups such as the marginalized and grassroots initiatives are key access points to wisdom-bearing approaches to tackle any significant complex social problem.

By understanding these five elements of social innovation, analysts, theorists, and academics can check to see if a particular innovation is well rounded and robust enough to make the change they are seeking.  Also, innovators themselves can use the elements to hone in on a single aspect of social innovation to highlight it, or, look at all the elements to as a sort of check-list to see if the innovation will be well-balanced or innovation enough to create a higher potential of success.

Through this understanding, the growing movement of social innovation can create the change that is necessary today.

– Mike Unrau

Caulier-Grice, J.; Davies, A.; Patrick, R. & Norman, W. (The Young Foundation). (2012). Defining social innovation. Social Innovation Overview: A deliverable of the project “The theoretical, empirical and policy foundations for building social innovation in Europe,” (TEPSIE), European Commission – 7th Framework Programme, Brussels: European Commission, DG Research.

Stern, N. H., & Great Britain. (2007). The economics of climate change: The Stern review. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


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