Interview with Prof. Dr. Jürgen Howaldt


Prof. Dr. Jürgen Howaldt, born 1960, is the Director of the Central Scientific Institute, Technical University of Dortmund and Scientific coordinator of the global research project SI DRIVE funded within the 7th Framework Programme of the European Commission. He is an internationally renowned expert in the field of social innovation. As a consultant he has not only presented his concept of social innovation to policy makers in Germany and Europe but in plenty of other parts of the world. Howaldt is Co-founder of the European School of Social Innovation and an Expert of the German Federal Chancellor’s Dialog for the Future.

(1) What is your definition of social innovation and what is your main research field?

The term social innovation can be traced back to the early 19th century, long before technological-economic connotations determined the common understanding of innovation. But at the same time the global mapping of the SI DRIVE project revealed that there is no shared understanding of social innovation (including a clear differentiation from other concepts such as social entrepreneurship or technological innovation).

Taking its cue from Schumpeters basic definition of innovation, we see social innovation as a new combination of social practices. What distinguishes social innovations from other manifestations of social change is that they are driven by certain actors in an intentional targeted manner with the goal of better satisfying or answering needs and problems than is possible on the basis of established practices. An innovation is therefore social to the extent that it is accepted and diffused in society or certain societal sub-areas and ultimately becomes institutionalized as new social practice. Just like any innovation social innovation does not necessarily provide impact that is ‘good’ for all or ‘socially desirable’ in an extensive and normative sense.

(2) Do you think social innovation gets enough public attention? If not, what would you like to see change? Why do you think social innovation is playing such an important role for our society?

The importance of social innovation for successfully addressing the social, economic, political and environmental challenges of the 21st century has been recognised not only within the Europe 2020 Strategy but also on a global scale. There is a growing consensus among practitioners, policy makers and the research community that technological innovations alone are not capable of overcoming the social and economic challenges modern societies are facing. The global mapping of social innovation initiatives uncovers countless approaches and successful initiatives that illustrate the strengths and potentials of social innovations in the manifold areas of social integration through education and poverty reduction, in establishing sustainable patterns of consumption, or in coping with demographic change. At the same time, social innovations are gaining in importance not only in relation to social integration and equal opportunities, but also in respect of the innovative ability and future sustainability of society as a whole.

(3) Do you think technological innovation is directly linked to social innovation and why?

Even we think it is necessary to distinguish social innovation from technological innovation analytically in practice they are closely interlinked and support each other. The global  mapping revealed that while in many social innovation initiatives technologies do not play an important role (e.g. integrated care; income support, reduction of educational disadvantages) in others technology is essential (E/M Health; Energy Supply etc.). Even though in different practice fields and social innovation initiatives the role of technology varies greatly, the possibility to take advantage of new technologies for tackling social problems often motivates or triggers action.

Overall new – but also the re-use of old and basic – technologies may offer new opportunities for social innovation. Technology can be an enabler, an instrument, a supporter, a form of substantiated knowledge, and a prerequisite for diffusion. Especially the potential of social media and mobile technologies happen to drive social innovations. In this regard novelties in technology can be a crucial to spark off new social practices. Yet looking at the same issue from the other side, in many cases new technologies are made viable and effective by the implementation of cooperative practices shaped by participating collectives.

This underlines the enormous relevance of social innovations concerning effective measures (including the application and utilisation of new technologies) to cope with, e.g., climate change: Policies for energy management (less energy consumption and more efficient energy supply) rely on technologies. However, their deployment will hardly be feasible and effectual if practices (behavior, norms, values) were to remain invariant. Further innovations in technology and business are imperative; yet in order to reap their full potential, and at the same time creating social development that is beneficial to cultures as inclusive as diverse, social innovations will make the difference.

(4) What are the main challenges for implementing social innovations?

The SI.DRIVE project provides for the first time an evidence based overview of various types of social innovation in different world regions and central policy areas (education, employment, environment and climate change, energy supply, transport and mobility, health and social care, and poverty reduction and sustainable development). The results reflect the diversity, broadness and usability of Social Innovation, proving the variety of actors and their interaction and exploring the systemic character and concept of social innovation.

Like technological innovations successful social innovations are based on a lot of presuppositions and require appropriate infrastructures and resources. Moreover, social innovations require specific conditions because they aim at activating, fostering and utilizing the innovation potential of the whole society. Therefore, new ways of developing and diffusing social innovations (e.g. design thinking, innovation labs etc.) as well as additional far reaching resources are necessary to unlock the potential of social innovation in society and to enable participation of the relevant actors and civil society.

There is an increasing awareness and promotion of social innovation: In many countries, the promotion of social innovation itself by the EU has served as a driver and opportunity for various actors to embrace new ways of working, access new funding streams, and promote change at a national level. Even though a lot has been done during the last years, there are still some important steps to take in order to move social innovation from the margin to the mainstream of the political agenda.

(5) What do you expect for the future of social innovation; in which fields will social innovation have the biggest impact?

Our society is not only facing such challenges as social exclusion and unemployment as well as inequalities in wealth, education, and health care, but also climate change and sustainable development. The most urgent and important innovations in the 21st century will take place in the social field. Traditional ways in which the market and the state have responded to societal demands are no longer sufficient. At the same time, technological innovations reveal limitations when it comes to coping with pressing societal challenges.

In the SI DRIVE project we elaborated four major topics with regard to the future of social innovation:

Social Innovation, democracy and participation

Social innovation builds on the desire of citizen to participate. With the expansion of the participation repertoire, social innovations challenge the current content of the whole range of ‘democratic’ and other types of politics. Participating citizens strengthen established structures both of democracy and of peaceful and prosperous societies more generally. At the same time, these citizens contest the existing power relations, in government, in the market, in work organisations and in their local communities. National, regional or local participation currently does not sufficiently unlock the potential of civil society in co-creating solutions for problems and demands that are theirs. Politics of all types need new ways to empower the citizen, to give the citizen responsibility for problem solving, to enable them to design and implement their own solutions, and importantly to dramatically improve their own agency to do so increasingly in the future

Social innovation and the economy

Social innovations create social and economic value. Social innovators, social entrepreneurs and the social economy can deliver new jobs and new sustainable growth opportunities. However, it is still largely misunderstood that social innovation also has a number of beneficial impacts well beyond traditional growth and employment effects, for instance by strengthening social cohesion, civic participation and commitment. The ability of social innovations to foster economic and social returns at the same time makes social innovation a promising option for creating more sustainable, just and resilient societies. Under this perspective social innovations are also a growing economic factor, reflected by the remarkable participation of economy partners in social innovation initiatives and the growing interests of companies for this kind of innovation going beyond pure corporate social responsibility. The economic potential of the broad range of social innovations is still underdeveloped and underestimated.

Social Innovation and the ecological transition

Social innovations can also create and increase ecological and environmental value. They have a very important role in moving society through the socio-ecological transition necessary to combat, or at least mitigate, climate change and other environmental stresses and degradations, the challenges of which are set to increase dramatically in the foreseeable future. Many social innovations already act upon the understanding that it is living assets, both human and natural especially working together, which are the only real sources of any type of innovation, including technological and business innovation.

Digital transformation needs Social Innovation

Digital technology has disruptive effects, dismantling current social relationships. Technology untamed brings great risks as well as great opportunities for everyone. To cope with these challenges, citizens and other actors need to understand how to master the digital transformation and put it to the service of society. Technological innovation needs to be strongly influenced by social innovation. Technological and social innovations can work hand-in-hand to create new services and products with benefits for the whole of society, as well as opening up new markets.

For further information


Howaldt, Jürgen et al. (2018): Atlas of social innovation. New practices for a better future.