Social Innovation: What is it?

By Katrina Tabuli

Social innovation has always had a blur of definitions. Some definitions emphasize the change social innovation accomplishes, while others focus on the process it journeys through. We have a difficult time communicating a single shared definition because social innovation is purely subjective. Let’s look at some of the ways social innovation has been defined for different audiences.

An Academic Perspective

Pol and Ville pointed out our society’s lack of consistent definition in their 2009 paper: “Social innovation: buzz word or enduring term?” After reviewing multiple interpretations of social innovation, they define it as ideas and actions, new or improved, catered for the betterment of the public good (p. 879). They add: “We are not declaring what social innovation ‘is.’ We simply believe that the suggested definition may be useful to guide research and facilitate interdisciplinary communication” (p. 885). According to them, while there is a growing desire to aim for profit through innovation, social innovation must have “the potential to improve either the quality or the quantity of life” (p. 881). Furthermore, they argued that “the ultimate end of social innovation is to help create better futures” through the cooperation of the public, economic market, and the government reaching a goal to provide a better life for everyone (p. 886).

From Pol and Ville, we can safely say that social innovation involves some kind of action to promote public good for a better future for our society. Now that we have an academic perspective, let’s see how “social innovation” translates to the public.

Albertan Perspectives

In “Social Innovation Ecosystem Mapping” (2015), the Government of Alberta’s Social Innovation Team hosted workshops around the province to gain an idea of what residents know about social innovation. Workshop participants who were asked what social innovation means responded with words like “change”, “solutions”, “connections”, “systems”, and “risk.” When asked about barriers, they responded with “unknowns”, “mindsets”, “incentives”, “timing”, and “money.” In comparison to Pol and Ville’s (2009) study, the workshop participants seem to dig more into our economic needs, often emphasizing what must be risked (or even sacrificed) in order to innovate. While their definitions still resonate with the concept of doing public good for a better future, the workshop participants suggest that social innovation, as understood by Alberta’s public, also demands economic risk. Of course, this may only be considered true in Alberta. People in other provinces may share different definitions and barriers when asked what social innovation means to them. This makes finding a shared definition for social innovation even more difficult, as it becomes subjective based on what is “good” for the environment in which people live.

Are Multiple Definitions OK?

Social innovation seems to be subjective, defined in ways that cater to particular disciplines or environments. To Frances Westley, a Canadian social innovation scholar, this makes sense. She argues that “definitions are not either superior or inferior to any of the others that are out there. It’s just the definitions that comes from the kind of epistemology and approach of the kind of researchers who are working there” (See minute 6:22 in her 2013 presentation: “A Short History of Social Innovation”).

So, we can argue that communicating concrete social innovation definitions will always be a difficult problem to solve as ideas or actions relating to social innovation can be more important or relevant to different kinds of audiences. Furthermore, Westley defined social innovation as “changing the systems dynamics that created the problem in the first place” (5:50). With this definition, deciding whether an initiative or idea counts as social innovation might depend on the timeline you apply it to (changing system dynamics does not happen overnight).


Social innovation is multi-layered and has multiple definitions. Academics and the public seem to agree that social innovations work for the greater good, yet may only reach a certain level of change within different systems. Social innovation definitions can vary depending on the public’s current state and where they see themselves in the near future.


Pol, E. and Ville, S. (2009). Social innovation: Buzz word or enduring term?. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 38(6), pp.878-885.

Westley, F. (2013). Social Innovation. Social Innovation Generation. Retrieved

“Social Innovation Ecosystem Mapping.” (2015). ABSI Connect. Retrieved from

Katrina Tabuli is a 4th year student in Mount Royal University’s Information Design program. This blog post was adapted from a short précis she wrote for a course: Historical Case Studies for Social Innovation.

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