Monthly Spotlight: Interview with Judith Terstriep, Westphalian University, Institute for Work and Technology, Research Unit «Innovation, Space & Culture»

Why is research in Social Innovation important for you?

Europe is confronted with many complex and interrelated socio-economic challenges and these have clearly been exacerbated by the economic crisis. They include long-term unemployment, an ageing population, poor educational attainment, gender inequalities, migration and integration, shortages of natural resources, global interdependence and climate change to name but a few. Traditional innovation and technological innovation, in particular, has long been considered the primary driver of economic growth and competitiveness, the core of the «knowledge economy» vision that has inspired European policymakers since at least the 1990s. Building on the European social model, policymakers have sought a high growth strategy that achieves convergence with high levels of social and economic inclusion. As we now know, this policy has proven somewhat elusive. Today we are in a situation where a period of technological growth culminating in prolonged recession has led to a pattern of uneven social and economic development in which restructuring has benefited some while leaving others far behind. Recessionary pressures mean that the state is generally in a poor position to drive interventions capable of achieving major solutions to tackle socio-economic challenges, even where there is the political will to do so. Thus, regional, organisational and individual resilience, competitiveness and equal opportunities additionally require new ways of thinking, new alliances, new processes and new forms of dialogue. In my view, social innovation as new solutions leading to improved capabilities, new forms of collaboration and a better use of societal resources can help regions, firms and individuals to sustainably cope with the challenges at hand.

What is the biggest challenge for Social Innovation research?

I would like to draw attention to two aspects which seem to me relevant to our deliberation over the future of social innovation: The first refers to variety of research activities and broad but scattered empirical evidences. For example, in a recent study we identified 17 FP7 projects, that in an effort to better understand the various forms of social innovation, applied mapping as a method for gaining insights into social innovation practices. We found that the transdisciplinary nature of social innovation research has led to a plurality of approaches and methods. Given the increasing interest in social innovation, and the apparent endeavour among policymakers to utilise social innovation to address current societal challenges, it becomes evident that mapping efforts need to be streamlined in order to make better use of their results. Second, creating a socio-economic system capable of understanding and generating effective social innovations complementary to other forms of innovation is a major task for Europe in the coming years. However, several key issues need to be addressed before social innovation can be mainstreamed fully into the European economic sphere and its policy environment. We need stronger and more coherent concepts of social innovation including alternative business models for financing, distribution and employment. Moreover, the characteristics and mechanisms of successful and pitfalls of failed social innovation should be better understood. Public policy instruments and methods for evaluating the economic and social impact of social innovation should be developed. This in turn necessitates a close collaboration among researchers involved in social innovation. A fact that has been acknowledged by the European Commission, which already has taken action with last years call for proposals on «New Forms of Innovation – Social Innovation Community».

How is your work related to Social Innovation?

Currently I am working on the economic foundation of social innovation, a so far largely unexplored research field. More precisely, within the FP7 project ‘SIMPACT – Boosting the Impact of Social Innovation in Europe through Economic Underpinnings`( we investigate the components (actors, institutions, resources), objectives and principles (modes of efficiency and governance) of social innovations addressing vulnerable and marginalised groups in society. Concerning the target group, a shift in thinking and acting from ‘marginalised and vulnerable as burden of society’ towards one that values their potential within society, constitutes a cornerstone of our research. Within our empirical research we conducted a series of business case studies and Social Innovation Biographies of successful and less successful initiatives that deepened our understanding of economic aspects, development paths, knowledge trajectories and stakeholder interactions throughout the innovation process. These feed into the development of improved business models, public policy instruments as well as social innovation indicators. The engagement and motivations that came to the fore in the many interviews we conducted with social innovators and other stakeholders involved in the innovation processes are very encouraging in my work as it also shows the relevance of our research.

Which book or article about social innovation should everybody read?

Being concerned with the economic foundation of social innovation including business models and finance, I would recommend the forthcoming book ‘New Frontiers of Social Innovation Research’, edited by Alex Nicholls, Julie Simon and Madeleine Gabriel (Palgrave), a collection that combines theoretical papers and empirical studies and takes a critical perspective, analysing potential downsides of social innovation.