Dimensions of social innovation

Social innovation includes several dimensions that differentiate it from innovation in general. The key concepts of social innovation align directly with these dimensions, as identified by B. Bock in her briefing paper on social innovation.[1]


Dimension 1: Social mechanisms of innovation

The term social innovation has its origins in the gaps in more traditional innovation. It is critical of the fact that the social mechanisms related to innovation are not properly taken into account.

Dimension 2: Social responsibility of innovation

Traditional innovation focuses on the profitability that it generates; however, the sustainability and social responsibility of such innovation should also be taken into account.

Dimension 3: Social objectives of innovation

Innovation takes place not only in traditional business-related environments but also in the social and public domains. In this context, the objectives of the innovation taking place are social, e.g. social inclusion or environmental sustainability.


Social Innovation Academy glossary versus dimensions

In our Social Innovation Academy, we have defined more than 30 concepts, terms and keywords which we feel are the most relevant ones for (future) social innovators. The list is not exhaustive but represents a good starting selection.

The selected concepts and terms align with the above-mentioned dimensions, as they relate to the processes (more related to dimension 1); impact and result (dimension 2) and the  reasons and objectives behind the social innovation (dimension 3).


Key social innovation concepts

From the terms and concepts identified it is clear that there are some that are relevant only to social innovation itself, and not to other types of innovation. For the terminology that could be applied to other innovation types, however, we have made an effort to place the definition within the social innovation sphere, although these should not be considered as those concepts most representative of any social innovation process.

As such, we have defined the following 8 key concepts that are specific to social innovation. Several of the terms have been grouped together as they have traits or features in common:


Changemaker: The term was introduced by Ashoka, the social entrepreneurship organisation, to define a person who wants to make a change in the world, and who actually makes the change occur through gathering knowledge and assuring resources. Anyone can be a changemaker – it is not about big changes, but any change or social impact a person makes on their community or their environment is considered equally important.


Social design is the process of empowering a local community and its people to take action and find solutions to the economic and social challenges they face.


Social entrepreneurship: There are many definitions of social entrepreneurship, but the bottom line is that a social enterprise is a business whose aim is to have a social impact, i.e. to provide a solution to a social challenge. Although social impact is the aim, this does not mean that financial gain or benefit is excluded.


Social impact / Collective impact: Social impact refers to the changing of a pressing social challenge, which is the result of purposeful actions or activities aimed at providing an answer to that particular challenge. Such an effort is performed via collaboration between different actors working together towards shared objectives. A successful collective impact initiative requires a common agenda and reinforcing activities, while at the same time sharing the same system of measurement and continuous communication.

Related to these terms is the concept of social impact assessment, which is the process of analysis and evaluation of the real and actual impact of the social innovation initiative. Different tools and methods can be used for this process.


Social investment / Socially responsible investing / Venture philanthropy: Although these 3 terms are slightly different, they share enough in the way of common ground to be addressed together.

Social investment is the provision of funding not only for social enterprises but for any type of voluntary and/or community organisation. The funds can come from public institutions, in which case the term refers to policies designed to strengthen people’s skills and capacities and to support them in participating fully in employment and social life. If the funds come from private organisations, they tend to take the form of repayable finance, such as, for instance, loans or a share in the profits or gains. The investors will expect to make a return and create social impact, although the latter generally carries more weight than the financial gain.

A socially responsible investment strategy is one in which investors not only seek financial gain but also look for social and sustainable value and impact, although, as an investment, the financial gain is still important. An investment opportunity that positions itself as socially responsible does not necessarily mean that it will provide the investor with a sufficient return on investment (RoI). A socially responsible investor may be willing to trade off some amount of their RoI for a socially responsible venture, but as the end goal of any investment, the financial gain remains important and this applies to both social as well as traditional businesses.

In venture philanthropy the investor is actively involved in the running of the initiative or business by providing added-value support services or even becoming involved in the management activities.

Many initiatives have emerged over recent years, such as socially responsible investment funds or venture capitalists who provide capital for social enterprises. Some of these funds merely invest, while others take a more venture philanthropy approach and get involved in the businesses to consolidate them and make them grow. However, the ultimate aim of these funds is to generate profitability for their investors.


Triple bottom line: First presented by Elkington[2] in 1994, this is a concept that takes into account not only the financial results of a company or organisation but also measures its social and environmental bottom lines, through assessing the degree of social responsibility and the economic value of its social and environmental impact. The three dimensions are:

  • People, which refers not only to the way the company treats its staff but also to the actions in and with the communities in which it conducts its business. This could be measured by job creation, employee turnover or equal opportunity policies.
  • Planet, which refers to sustainable practices and a reduction of the environmental footprint. This can be measured, for example, by the management of waste or levels of recycling.
  • Financial, which refers to profit.


Social impact bond, also known as a social benefit bond or social bond, is a contract with the public sector whereby payment to the service or product provider is based upon success. It most commonly concerns improved social outcomes that result in savings for the public sector. The first social impact bond was launched by a UK based company in 2010.


Learn more at Social Innovation Academy

To provide insight and understanding of the main concepts of social innovation, EOLAS and Limitless, together with 3 other partners, have recently started a project aimed at developing the first online Social Innovation Academy in Europe. The Social Innovation Academy is the first fully online management training programme focusing exclusively on social innovation.

Why Social Innovation Academy? Social innovation is increasingly being perceived as the answer to the rising number of European societal challenges. While the European authorities, leading academics, policy experts, business people and activists agree that social innovation is the key to a better future for Europe and the world, it is extremely difficult for professionals to obtain high-quality training on what social innovation actually offers and, more importantly, how it can be done in practice. The Social Innovation Academy aims to change this situation in Europe and beyond.

If you are interested in following this project, you can subscribe to our newsletter, become one of our friends or follow us on social media (LinkedInTwitter and Facebook). We welcome all requests for collaboration here.



[1] Briefing paper on Social Innovation (B.B. Bock, 2011).

[2] John Elkington introduced the concept in 1994 and later used it in his book ‘Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business’ (1997).


The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsi­ble for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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