Toward a Theory of Social Innovation

Innovation Policy Lab White Paper No. 2016-01

67 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2015

See all articles by Kristen Pue

Kristen Pue

University of Toronto - Department of Political Science

Christian Vandergeest

Harvard Law School

Dan Breznitz

University of Toronto - Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy

Date Written: December 1, 2015


The term social innovation has become popular as an umbrella concept describing an array of social programs and initiatives deserving attention. Unfortunately, this flurry of social innovation activity has, as of yet, not led to the development of a comprehensive theory of social innovation. This is a critical missing step if our aim is to enact public and private policies to develop, stimulate, and maximize social innovation. Tellingly, we have yet to agree on a definition: there is no unified sense of what social innovation is and what is it not. Without a clearer idea of cause and effects in social innovation, it will remain difficult to develop desirable interventions and scale them up.

This paper is a first step to close this gap; our aim is to offer a theoretical framework which can easily be used in practice. We start by proposing a new definition of social innovation, characterizing it as a process encompassing the emergence and adoption of socially creative strategies, which reconfigure social relations in order to actualize a given social goal. This definition offers several advantages. First, by defining social innovation as a process aiming to bring about social change we avoid two main deficiencies of current definitions. First, we do not tautologically define social innovation as its own outcome. Second, we refrain from making it normative, which is important because we can easily envision a successful implementation of a social creative strategy that aims to improve social conditions and has successfully brought significant social chance, only to find that the outcome leaves the target population worse off. A second advantage of defining social innovation as a process is that it enables us to easily delineate between the main actors, their institutional environment, and the interactions between them. This foundational framework will enable researchers to develop hypotheses and test them while simultaneously providing a basis for policy makers to develop policies rooted in an understanding of cause and effect, analysis of bottlenecks, and a deepened appreciation as to where policy can or cannot have a positive impact.

Our framework is built so as to integrate several components of existing research on social innovation, extending their utility for both research and practice.

The socially creative strategy is a key reactant in the process of social innovation; the invention of a socially creative strategy initiates social innovation, yet the transformation of a socially creative strategy occurs throughout the social innovation process. While a socially creative strategy may not, for a variety of reasons, complete the social innovation process by arriving at the end state of adoption, a completed social innovation process will always result in social change. This outcome occurs due to the interaction of the two driving forces of social innovation. We call these driving forces of social innovation the agentic engine and the structural engine. The terms ‘agentic’ and ‘structural’ reflect social science thinking on how individuals (agents) can influence events but are also constrained in doing so by social structures such as rules, roles, and organizations. Broadly, the process of social innovation proceeds as follows. The agentic engine of social innovation begins when a social entrepreneur (or group of social entrepreneurs) devises a socially creative strategy to put into practice an idea that reconfigures society’s approach to a given social problem. The social entrepreneur is influenced by the social environment and existing social structures. The structural engine of social innovation pertains to whether the uptake of a socially creative strategy occurs across the social environment and social structures. This occurs through emergence and adoption, two halves of the social innovation diffusion cycle. If both engines of social innovation lead to the successful emergence and then adoption of a socially creative strategy (the end state of the social innovation process), they result in two outcomes: social change and a reconfiguration of the social problem such that it, ideally though not necessarily, meets its social goal.

Throughout the paper we elaborate on this concept and show its practical use. Following the introduction we define social innovation and elaborate on the core elements of this definition in section II. We continue in section III by presenting our framework for understanding the process of social innovation, bringing together concepts from related research areas. We discuss how the process of social innovation may differ according to the institutional context and the three policy objectives commonly associated with social innovation. Next, in section IV we justify three novel aspects of our approach. Finally, we conclude in section V by considering how our approach is valuable for scholars and practitioners.

Keywords: social innovation

Suggested Citation

Pue, Kristen and Vandergeest, Christian and Breznitz, Dan, Toward a Theory of Social Innovation (December 1, 2015). Innovation Policy Lab White Paper No. 2016-01, Available at SSRN: or

Kristen Pue

University of Toronto - Department of Political Science ( email )

Sidney Smith Hall
100 St George Street
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3G3

Christian Vandergeest

Harvard Law School ( email )

1557 Massachusetts Ave
6 Ever
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Dan Breznitz (Contact Author)

University of Toronto - Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy ( email )

Toronto, Ontario

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