01. July | 2021

Debate: Are Social Innovations the Answer to Social Crises?

Crises typically expose structural problems that have often existed for a long time: unsound business models, for example, the political suppression of social problems or environmentally destructive production and consumption practices. At the same time, crises are also seen as opportunities to help new approaches achieve a breakthrough: "Never let a good crisis go to waste" is a quote that, like so many others, is attributed to Winston Churchill. Do crises promote innovation? And, asked the other way round, are innovations the answer to conditions that are structurally unsustainable and thus repeatedly produce crises? When the social sciences talk about innovative ways out of crisis situations, they do not primarily mean purely technical or purely economic innovations. After all, it is obvious that a socio-ecological transformation in response to the climate crisis, for example, cannot be achieved through technical-economic innovations alone, but that new social practices are needed, such as changed mobility habits. At the IRS, there is intensive research on social innovations, but not all researchers assess the concept of social innovation in the same way. Two researchers, the political scientist Timmo Krüger and the sociologist Ralph Richter, take a position here in the debate on social innovations.

Timmo Krüger

The Innovation Imperative Is Part of the Problem

Although the diagnosis of a deep socio-ecological crisis in society is now widely shared, solutions persist in conventional economic policy thinking that prioritise growth - now in the form of "green" growth. In fact, however, it is not green growth strategies that have led to absolute reductions in global emissions so far, but only economic slumps (triggered by the financial and economic crisis of 2007 to 2009 and currently by the COVID-19 pandemic). From 2010 onwards, emissions rose rapidly again, and without far-reaching measures, this will also be the case again after the COVID 19 pandemic.

So, the call for social innovation is obvious. And indeed, the popularity of the concept has increased attention to the complex social requirements of transformation processes and contributed to an appreciation of the important work of grassroots civil society initiatives. From the post-growth perspective from which I argue, however, the concept brings with it some problematic aspects. There is no question that good research and emancipatory projects have also been carried out under the slogan of social innovation. In this respect, my criticism is not aimed at the concrete projects that have actually been carried out, but at the innovation imperative that is reproduced with the concept of social innovation.

At the core of degrowth is the demand for a democratically controlled, drastic reduction of resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in order to come closer to the goals of social and ecological justice (especially on a global level). A correspondingly drastic reduction in the consumption of energy, raw materials and land can - with the urgency required - only be achieved through reduced production and consumption of resource- and emission-intensive goods and services. The concept of social innovations is not compatible with this perspective for four reasons.

Firstly, it assumes that it is always the supposed or actual innovations of social practices and initiatives that are decisive for socio-ecological transformations. This sometimes overlooks the fact that the transformation potential of certain practices and initiatives may be found on completely different levels - for example, in experiences of self-empowerment and self-efficacy. Furthermore, the expectation of innovation increases the principle of permanent activation of physical, social and cultural energy sources that have not yet been fully exhausted. This has a very practical effect, for example, on criteria for awarding funding. The pressure for permanent innovation created by calls for funding is an obstacle to the desired continuation of non-market work. It promotes the tight timing of deadlines, the shortening of planning horizons, but also the simulation of innovations.

In 2012, the repair initiative "Café kaputt" was founded in Leipzig. In regular operation, skilled volunteers work together with visitors to repair defective items they have brought with them. In the repair consultation hours (on a donation basis), the focus is - in addition to enabling the long-lasting use of objects - on acquiring repair skills together. In addition, Café kaputt is a place for exchange on topics such as the throwaway society and post-growth, where educational projects are also carried out. In the first years, the strong focus on innovation in tenders such as the “Innovationspreis Weiterbildung” (“Innovation Award for Further Education”) of the federal state of Saxony was not yet an obstacle for the project. On the contrary, the idea of repair cafés had just come to Germany from the Netherlands, so many funding opportunities were open at the beginning. However, the pressure to innovate is increasingly becoming a problem for Café kaputt. It is becoming increasingly difficult to finance the regular operation. Funding can still be acquired for new offers (such as additional educational projects), but neither for the remuneration of administrative and coordination tasks nor for rent or worn-out tools.

Secondly, the concept of social innovation has a "harmonious" bias. What remains underexposed are conflicts and questions of power, which are primarily not fought out in relation to innovations, but in relation to exnovations. "Exnovation" refers to the intentional elimination (or deconstruction) of practices, products, technologies, and infrastructures. Processes of exnovation are almost inevitably accompanied by conflicts. After all, those who produce or use the elements chosen for elimination usually have an interest in perpetuating their patterns of production and consumption. However, it is obvious that in an ambitious socio-ecological transformation, new, innovative practices, products, technologies, and infrastructures cannot simply be added without touching the existing ones.

This can be seen, for example, in the case of mobility. Transport is the only sector in Germany in which greenhouse gas emissions have not decreased compared to 1990, but have continued to rise. Here, great hopes are currently pinned on technical innovations such as electromobility, but also on social innovations such as car sharing. However, the decisive lever to drastically reduce resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in the required short time would be at least a partial abolition of air travel and motorised individual transport - and neither electromobility nor car-sharing contribute to this. A study by the Öko-Institut, the Frankfurt-based Institute for Social-Ecological Research and car2go even states that the offer of car2go led to an increase in the number of cars (because fewer cars were abolished than were provided by car2go) and to an increase in transport-related greenhouse gas emissions (due to more car journeys).

Thirdly, the concept of social innovation favours the gradual optimisation of existing structures over transformative approaches that aim to break with hegemonic structures. The practices and strategies of actors are considered transformative when they are not content with establishing a niche, but position themselves in political debates to contribute to the transformation of social models, norms, institutions and infrastructures. But only a few initiatives that are generally considered socially innovative have a transformative claim in this sense. They step into the breach when traditional forms of economic and state action do not offer adequate solutions to social and ecological problems. To a certain extent, they take over repair functions without fundamentally changing the social structure. This is no coincidence, since the concept of social innovation is based on precisely the basic principles that, from the perspective of degrowth, led to the socio-ecological crisis of modern societies in the first place: namely, the modernisation-theoretical idea that growth and acceleration bring social progress.

For Café kaputt, too, it is increasingly becoming a challenge to live up to its own transformative claim because it has to adapt to the funding tenders. External people regularly suggest that the team could found a social enterprise and organise their own services in such a way that they generate profits. Or they could run a commercial business on the side (a "normal" café would be obvious), which would cross-finance the non-profit activities. The operators of Café kaputt reject these options because repair cafés are spaces beyond the logic of the market and exchange. To change this would not only make it more difficult for people with low incomes to participate. They would also be forced to think and develop the project from a business perspective. This would greatly change the character of the café and lead to an extensive loss of its transformative power.

Fourthly, the focus on innovation obscures the fact that (locally and globally) so-called traditional lifestyles often tend to be post-growth compatible. Traditional lifestyles should not be romanticised or overlooked for their inherent injustices - for example in relation to gender issues. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to focus more on the existing (but partly already lost) marginalised, supposedly outdated or simply little noticed social worlds, which are characterised precisely not by their innovative power but by their immobility, unproductivity, conviviality and contemplation.

While political and socio-cultural initiatives are usually supported almost exclusively by a dynamic, highly mobile, well-connected, academic clientele, the spectrum at Café kaputt is more heterogeneous: its volunteers come from very different social milieus. Here, people also take on tasks and functions who do not necessarily embody the habitus of trendsetters from so-called leading milieus. People who are perhaps not used to holding office, positioning themselves publicly, networking or exchanging ideas internationally contribute with their expertise in handicrafts and their affinity for repairing things and doing things themselves. Precisely because they are less mobile and involved in fewer activities and networks - compared to students, for example, who are of course also represented in Café kaputt - they play a stabilising role for the Leipzig Repair Café. They don't move, they don't dedicate themselves to the next project after a short time and they are not out of the country for many weeks or months a year. They identify with the Café kaputt and are prepared to take on long-term responsibility.

Ralph Richter

Social Innovations Stand for Incremental and Transformative Change

So far, I have not seen myself in the role of a defender of the concept of social innovation. I use the concept in projects and publications because it is well suited for the analysis of incremental and disruptive change processes. At the same time, I also recognise some problematic aspects - but more on that later. The term "social innovation" can mean different things: In the sense of an observable phenomenon, it refers to novel ways of thinking and practices that people push forward and adopt in order to solve problems and meet needs better than was possible before. Examples include gender-responsive language, online video conferencing or sharing transport. In the sense of a research concept (social innovation research), it stands for the analysis of such phenomena as an expression of social transformation processes.

Finally, there is a third, normatively charged meaning. From this perspective, social innovations are desirable developments that contribute to the self-empowerment of social groups and are thus a key to a just, democratic society. However, such a definition threatens to lose the analytical distance to the empirical phenomenon. The diffusion of the term into the political sphere also makes academic work with it more difficult. Admittedly, this mainstreaming also has positive effects in some cases, for example when EU research funding moves away from its technology-centredness and turns towards social science research. But it also leads to wear and tear and dilution of the concept.

Timmo Krüger's contribution to the debate states that the concept of social innovation is tied to the growth paradigm. In it, change only occurs through innovation, which ignores other forms of change such as self-empowerment and self-efficacy. I can understand this argument insofar as the frequent use of the concept of innovation in politics and funding practice blurs its meaning and it is then partly no longer about real change, but about the permanent production of supposedly new things. In funding practice, this is reflected in the well-known phenomenon of generous seed-funding and abrupt shortages in the consolidation and scaling of innovative approaches.

However, the concept of social innovation itself does not prescribe such an agenda. "Innovation" does not refer to the breathless development of new ideas, but to the long-term establishment of new ways of thinking, practices and structures in sometimes lengthy, non-linear processes. To a large extent, the concept of social innovation is simply an analytical tool specialised in the study of new kinds of social practice. Where its own political programme has been developed in the name of social innovation, as in the environment of the Belgian planning scientist Frank Moulaert, it corresponds to the very opposite of what the critique assumes: Here it is about structural change through "empowerment", i.e. the self-empowerment of people on the ground, through novel forms of political organisation in neighbourhoods and the political claim of social movements.

This brings me directly to the second point of criticism, according to which the concept of social innovation only stands for changes of symptoms, but not for a real social transformation and, moreover, aims too much at harmony, so that questions of power and conflicts are left out. It is true: Whenever social innovations are unilaterally described in politics or science as something desirable, the treatment of conflicts and power issues comes up short. In research on social innovations, however, conflicts in innovation processes do play a role. This is already explained by the origins of innovation research with Joseph Schumpeter, who considered creation and destruction as two sides of the innovation process. Social innovations always mean that something familiar is questioned and replaced. They therefore inevitably provoke resistance.

The well-known innovation researcher Frances Westley developed the concept of transformative social innovation, which is not only about novel solutions to concrete problems, but about changing the social institutions themselves that have created the problems. It is thus definitely about changing structures and power relations. In the literature, examples are given of both "incremental" (step-by-step) and "disruptive" social innovations. The fact that the latter are cited less frequently may be due to the fact that disruptive innovations occur less frequently overall. The example of the repair café mentioned by Timmo Krüger is, incidentally, cited in the literature as a classic case of social innovation.

I cannot help but also take up the cudgels for car sharing. Car sharing, the critics say, is a harmonious social innovation that does not contribute to a necessary radical change in transport. Specifically, the case of car2go is mentioned, which, according to a study, does not contribute to a reduction in the number of cars, but on the contrary even results in an increase. In fact, so-called free-floating services such as car2go - which has been merged into Share Now since 2019 - damage the original idea of car sharing. Providers such as Share Now, which are not coincidentally backed by traditional vehicle manufacturers such as Daimler, awaken new mobility needs through the easy availability of sharing vehicles, not the willingness to do without. However, it would be completely wrong to conclude from the example of car2go that carsharing as a whole is ineffective. Station-based car sharing can indeed noticeably reduce car ownership, as a study by the Bundesverband Carsharing shows. Its users in particular apparently do not buy their own cars to a large extent. In my opinion, the fact that station-based car sharing has not yet brought comprehensive relief is rather due to the systematic discrimination by the legislator, for example in the allocation of parking space in cities.

In a changing world, where new things emerge quickly, but counter-movements also form quickly, the analytical skills of the social sciences are more in demand than ever. The social sciences have always had a large repertoire of theories on social change. For a long time, however, they lacked a concept for describing change at an intermediate level: between social developments on the one hand and changes manifesting themselves in ways of thinking, practices and structures on the other. Moreover, the social changes that accompany technological and economic change were long treated as a residual category, insignificant as an explanatory variable. The concept of social innovation compensates for this one-sidedness, and does so in a way that is compatible with the long-established concept of innovation in business and technology. It takes into account the fact that innovations are not only produced in the service of economic success and technical inventiveness, but also to solve social problems and to better meet social needs.


Research Associate