Gudrun-Christine Schimpf


Greifswald, D


Civic Engagement, urban history, gender studies,

By Gudrun-Christine Schimpf

Analysing social innovation: Lessons from history

The Flying Doctors are an Australian legend. For 90 years they have cared for patients in the Australian Outback. Nowadays, however, some of them do not reach their patients via helicopter anymore, but through the internet. This is in many cases technically feasible and not a problem for the physicians.

For the patients, however, internet-based care can be a problem. Many Australians living outside big cities do not yet have broadband. The state refrains from intervening and leaves the problem solution to the market, and commercial providers concentrate on the more densely populated areas. Many Australians therefore have only access to expensive and often limited satellite links.

Similar debates took place in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Then, however, the resource was not the internet but rather the supply of fresh water, access to social housing and access to education for all. When the market proved unable to solve the problem, it was up to social innovators to step in and provide new solutions.

We expect that social innovations will provide new solutions to societal problems, but social innovation research has not been able to see how social innovations have evolved over time, an insight that is important for far-sighted development. To see how social innovations evolve, CrESSI collected evidence on the above mentioned historic social innovations over a period of 150 years. The research team at Heidelberg University, Germany then analysed this data to learn about their trajectories of social innovations and how they had adapted to new constellations of interest or upcoming crises.

The research team, headed by Georg Mildenberger, led two work packages dealing with data collection and analysis, to which all CrESSI partners contributed. The study was structured as embedded single case studies, which means focusing on a single phenomenon for the most part, but giving attention to different subunits. Therefore, some individual case studies of more specific developments in certain towns, countries or periods were conducted as well as case studies on the more overarching ‘macro’ perspective. The data collection covered both qualitative and quantitative data that came from historical literature, databases and interviews.

The interdisciplinary CrESSI theoretical framework allowed us to use methods from several disciplines to gain insight on how social innovations develop, adapt to changing circumstances and sustain themselves during times of crises. By applying qualitative content analysis, for example, we were able to identify stable patterns and actor constellations (networks of the different players surrounding the case study) that (re)occurred at different stages of the social innovation lifecycle. These patterns and constellations could explain certain incidents that contributed to a broader adaptation of the social innovation. This included, for example, different welfare regimes and policies, economic and political crises, networks of different actors, as well as changing demands.

As part of this work, we also had to turn our eyes on ourselves and our own methods. We discussed the explanatory value and consistency of our theoretical framework to describe and explain the examined social innovations. We also critically reflected on the idealised models on social innovation lifecycles typically used in this sort of analysis, and also on the usefulness of specific relevant ecosystem factors of the social innovations compared to related research fields and models such as ‘SCOT’ (Social Construction of Technology), or ‘socio-technical transitions with a multi-level perspective analysis’.

Past social innovations have a lot to teach us for today. Our research showed that social innovation is not completely understood if we concentrate on simply single organisations and short periods of time. Historical-informed analyses showed the influence of diverse actors and interests as well as the impact of external shocks on the outcome of social innovations. For example, the social housing and the fresh water cases shared a common basis in 19th century discourse on the social question, but each have different later trajectories as they respond to changing ecosystems. Social innovation quite often changes direction as it becomes mainstream, and risks pushing its target groups to the margins.

Blog written by Gudrun-Christine Schimpf and Georg Mildenberger. Georg Mildenberger is Head of Research at the Centre for Social Investment of Heidelberg University. He does research on Social Innovation since many years and is especially interested in the role of civil society actors for social innovation.

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