An interview by Diana Fehr / July, 2022
Prof. Dr. Jürgen Howaldt is the director of the Social Research Centre of Dortmund, and professor at the department of Social Sciences at TU Dortmund University. He is an internationally renowned expert in the field of social innovation, as well as the co-founder and chair of the European School of Social Innovation, whose research focuses on social sciences-based innovation research and social innovation. He was the scientific coordinator of the global research project “SI-DRIVE – Social Innovation: Driving Force of Social Change”, funded within the 7th Framework Program of the European Union, and has co-edited the Atlas of Social Innovation (https://www.socialinnovationatlas.net/).
MuseoSpace: I want to start with a quote from your book „A research agenda for Social Innovation“ wherein you state that: “We will not change the world for the better by waiting for the state or the market to change the world for us. We need to change our social practice.”
By now, we as society understand that Social Innovation is a “Driving force for social change“ and we also know that The Culture and Creative Industry become meaningful in relation to societal challenges inasmuch as they are able to address them in their complexity. This is why there is a growing expectation among cultural economists and policymakers that the cultural and creative sectors should play a strategic role in driving more sustainable and social innovation.
But is it even possible to explain the concept of Social Innovation in a nutshell?
Howaldt: Yes, we see social innovation as the change of social practices. They change the way we live together, work, consume, distribute wealth or deal with crises. In this context, the cooperation of actors from different areas of society is of particular importance. I think that not only social entrepreneurs, but each and every citizen can be a social innovator by making suggestions on how to change the way we live together and develop new forms of living.
MuseoSpace: And why do you think Social Innovation is so important?
Howaldt: If we think about innovation, we normally think about technologies, like the steam engine, computers, or smartphones, and we put our hopes in these technologies to solve our problems, as we are currently doing with green technologies in the socio-ecological transformation. The core idea of social innovation is that we do not only have to develop new technologies, but we have to change the way we use these technologies, and discover which new social practices enable them best. This development has only recently become a part of the innovation policy, and therefore it’s important to mention why social innovation is so important.
MuseoSpace: What makes it so complex that it has only become part of innovation policy in the last few years?
Howaldt: The complexity arises from the fact that all our social practices are embedded in societal structures and institutions. Sometimes it’s much easier to develop a new technology or a new artefact than to change something in your life or your own behaviour.
Social innovation is something that, on the one hand, is easy to imagine, but on the other hand, very difficult to realise as a social practice, meaning that it’s not only an action on a personal level, but something that the whole society must implement to achieve a social change that complies with the interests of many different stakeholders.
MuseoSpace: How would you describe the relation between social innovation and social change?
Howaldt: I think that social innovations are the basic building blocks for social change. But there is no master plan of how to create broader social change, it is a process that has to be initiated by society.
We need a lot of new initiatives such as social practices, and institutions that envision new ways of living. However, it is very important that they are accepted in society and are not only part of some niche activities, because only then they will have a broader and bigger impact and create social change.
MuseoSpace: Most institutions heard about technological innovation and are somewhat familiar with this innovation journey. But has social innovation also experienced the same kind of development, and if yes how does it differ from its technological counterpart?
Howaldt: I think one of the major differences between technological changes and social innovation is that social innovation mostly started in society, whereas technological innovation is pushed by either the market or universities. Social innovations usually emerge in society; they are initiated by citizens that have ideas to change life, and develop new solutions in a very innovative way.
Therefore, we need infrastructures that enable and empower society to unfold its creative potential, and develop new solutions. At the same time, it is very important that these solutions will be diffused in society and become more well known. So the knowledge that has been developed in one place should also be transferred to another place. And I think an important task for policy-makers is to create an ecosystem for social innovation, that allows the actors in society to work together to develop new solutions for old problems in a participatory way.
MuseoSpace: Which other factors would contribute to the adoption of social innovation?
Howaldt: First you have to differentiate between the innumerable individual members of society and ask questions like – Why are they interested in initiating social innovation? Do they want to fulfil a special need, and do they want to create a broader impact? Are there constrains or regulations, like we saw during the pandemic with the implementation of masks?
It comes down to changing the framework and creating the opportunity for cross-sector collaboration that will ultimately come up with the best solution and provide the necessary funding. Here, it is especially important to create a new ecosystem that changes the focus from technological innovation, which until now has received the main funding, to social innovation which remains clearly underfunded. For example these funds could help create new university departments that work together with the community to solve societal problems, like social inclusion, creating community resilience, and addressing climate change, and provide them with the infrastructure to develop the best solutions.
I think with this mind, the museum and creative industry could be a very important partner that can motivate people to create new narratives of social innovation, and its relation to societal transformation, as they have a direct impact on a big part of society.
MuseoSpace: But isn’t it the case that guidelines which are used for technological innovation can be used for social innovation as well?
Howaldt: Yes, there are definitely some similarities, for example, social innovation can definitely learn from the experiences of technological driven innovation. But there are also differences, such as the ways in which they spread across society: there are ways through which social innovation can be implemented and also achieved, which do not necessarily culminate in a product or a service.
The key problem of social innovation is scaling up to the next level, which can be resolved by creating new strategies of diffusion. The systematic barriers that need to be overcome in order to do this, require not only social entrepreneurs but also actors that can change the policy framework conditions mentioned earlier.
We need to think broader! In the end none of this can be achieved if we as society don’t change our perspective on the power of innovators to create the right solutions for our communities and are willing to absorb them.
MuseoSpace: So it is about the collective, and not the individual!
Howaldt: Yes, and this also applies to the innovators. As we have seen in our research projects it is not only one sudden social innovation that makes the difference. There are many different social innovations that draw from each other, like we have seen with car sharing initiatives, but also social innovators that work together to create solutions. It doesn’t matter who the initiator was – the most important thing is change, and this can only come about with a multitude of inputs.
MuseoSpace: Is it possible to measure the social impact created by these activities?
Howaldt: That is a core question. There are a lot of research projects that have recently been started to better understand what the specific societal impact of these activities is. It is not about how much money is invested, but the problems that have been solved and the impact that has been created, as well as how quickly and deeply it becomes a new routine, finds institutions that support it, and what change it brings to society.
MuseoSpace: Is there anything else that specifically needs a bigger push?
Howaldt: Yes, it comes down to making social innovation more visible. We as TU Dortmund, for example, developed a way of mapping social innovation activities through „The Atlas of Social Innovation“ which ultimately shows that social innovation is everywhere, from poverty reduction, to education, climate change, new mobility concepts and beyond. So I think there is a lot happening and social innovation initiatives are very prominent all over the world.
But for me as a researcher it is important that especially universities take up social innovation, not only by doing more research but also by integrating social innovation directly in the teaching process, to stimulate students to rethink their role in society and create stronger interactions. It’s always a matter of working together right at the beginning of the project, whether this is a business, a university, or a museum – only then, change can happen.
MuseoSpace: Thank you for the interview on this very important topic.
Images: Dr. Jürgen Howaldt