Social Innovation: A series for green manufacturing

Welcome to the first part of an article series focusing on social innovation and how it can contribute to sustainability in the manufacturing industry. 

What is social innovation?

The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been broadly used in industry the last years and become very well known. CSR focus on how companies take responsibility for that their production and operations rather have positive than negative impact on society, our planet and people.

Social innovation is a concept that can be used and defined broadly. A common definition of social innovation (also used as foundational definition in the greenSME project) is,

“A social innovation is new combination and/or new configuration of social practices in certain areas of action or social contexts prompted by certain actors or constellations of actors in an intentional targeted manner with the goal of better satisfying or answering needs and problems than is possible on the basis of established practices. An innovation is therefore social to the extent that it […] is socially accepted and diffused widely throughout society or in certain societal sub-areas, transformed depending on circumstances and ultimately institutionalized as new social practice or made routine. As with every other innovation, "new" does not necessarily mean "good" but in this case is "socially desirable" in an extensive and normative sense.” (Schwarz 2010)

More simply explained, social innovation is a new combination of social practices driven by a constellation of actors to solve specific complex challenges. This is often associated with changing mindsets and behaviours. 

Social practice consists of three elements: material (e.g. a 3D printer), competences (understanding of how the 3D printer functions and skills to use it) and meaning (motivation/reason to use the 3D printer, e.g. to reallocate production of supply or spare parts back to Europe).  Social innovation can therefore be both a mean (process) and an end (solution). (Watson, Pantzar & Shove, 2012)

Social innovation in companies & business

When using social innovation in companies, we often talk about Corporate Social Innovation, and the focus is on how social innovation can play a part in improving the companies social, environmental and economic sustainability – both internal operations and external impact. Different types of social innovation in companies can come from efforts such as:

  • Creating strategic partnerships & engagement of business partners
  • Involvement and engagement of employees in strategic/organizational/technical development processes
  • Training & development of employees (e.g. in human-technology relation)
  • Development and review of social & sustainable business models

For companies, considering and incorporating social innovation to any initiative done to improve their financial or environmental sustainability will strength the initiative and contribute to long term impact by involving relevant people in the development and implementation of the initiative.

Social innovation in greenSME

GreenSME approach social innovation from this company perspective, as internal corporate social innovation, focusing on how social innovation can deliver non-technological (organisational, people-related) contributions to solutions on green sustainability challenges within the manufacturing SMEs (e.g. developing new working, collaboration or management practices).  

In practice, manufacturing SMEs will be encouraged to apply social innovation in the projects developed for the greenSME open call. It can be as primary initiative, or in combination with technology deployment in order to improve green sustainability. In this case, social and technological innovations can be understood as twins which each contribute to increasing sustainability. The social innovation can as such be part of the process (e.g. including staff in development processes) and part of the end solutions (green business model innovations). 


Stay tuned for next episode in the greenSME social innovation series where we try to dig deeper into how companies and manufacturing SMEs can use social innovation to improve their sustainability!


Schwarz, Michael. Social Innovation: Concepts, research fields and international trends, 2010.

WATSON, Matt; PANTZAR, Mika; SHOVE, Elizabeth. The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. The dynamics of social practice, 2012, S. 1-208.

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