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“It’s about innovation through participation”

An interview with Professor Dr. Daniel Buhr and Professor Dr. Udo Weimar, Steinbeis Entrepreneurs at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Social and Technological Innovation

When we hear the word “innovation,” most of us immediately think of technical innovation and forget that there’s always a social aspect to innovations, because they shape the way we interact with one another – on a private level or professionally. TRANSFER magazine spoke to Professor Dr. Daniel Buhr and Professor Dr. Udo Weimar, both Steinbeis Entrepreneurs at the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Social and Technological Innovation, about social innovation and networks, also discussing how to make a success out of networks.

Hello, Professor Buhr. You deal with social innovation. What exactly does that mean?

Daniel Buhr:
According to the original definition offered by Wolfgang Zapf, social innovations are “new material and social technologies that help us meet our needs and better solve our social problems.” So social innovations are social practices and procedures we use, which have been institutionalized based on the broad acceptance of society. Their aim is to find a better way to solve existing problems compared to previous approaches. Often, social innovations thus dovetail tightly with technical innovations. So new technical developments offer new ways to engage in things like teleworking or they offer more flexible approaches to working hours based on different life stages, but for that, they also require further development in social security systems and work organization, not least as compensation. They also act as a catalyst for new social services, such as childcare, nursing, or new training and staff education options.

Turning to you, Professor Weimar: Hello. What role do networks play in the emergence, development, and dissemination of social innovations?

Udo Weimar:
Ideally, the starting point for a social innovation is a tangible need. I believe that networks or collaboration within diverse ecosystems are a rudimentary requirement for the entire innovation process. This applies just as much to looking for ideas during the invention phase – stepping back from the benefit – as it does to disseminating good ideas later down the line – as a product, service, or process. I say this because ultimately, innovation is the realization of an idea that hasn’t yet been tested – i.e. demonstrating that an idea could actually work –  and finally comes dissemination within the economy and society. A really crucial role in all this is played by different forms of learning and dissemination, across different groups of stakeholders.

Are there differences between networks in the field of social innovation and networks in other fields – and if so, what kinds of differences?

Udo Weimar:
From an economic standpoint, yes, there certainly are, because with social innovation, often you’re also dealing with volunteering and discretionary support, or intrinsic motivations to join an ecosystem. This isn’t necessarily based on economic logic. In other words, coordination doesn’t so much function through a market, or through supply and demand, or through prices, but through trust and intensive networking. As a rule, social innovations tend to be the consequence of an open innovation process that, if possible, involves all four strands of the helix from the beginning – the (social) economy, science, politics (or public administration), and civil society. It’s complex and time-consuming, and it may not always make sense from a business perspective – for example, because as a company in a market economy, there’s sometimes a tendency to use closed innovation processes, and first you want to get your intellectual property protected. But there’s a tendency for innovation processes to open up in lots of areas, because often the problems you face are too complex to solve on your own.

What are the key success factors of social innovations and networks in this area?

Daniel Buhr:
Trust – and institutions that engender trust such as platforms and formats based on institutionalized participation and co-designed formats. This is about innovation through participation. The network model reflects the fact that innovations aren’t just down to the effort of individual stakeholders, but the way all the stakeholders work together can have a decisive influence on the ability of an organization to innovate, or the competitiveness of a state as a whole. The emergence of innovations is understood to mean the result of an interactive and cumulative learning process between individuals and organizations – a process that’s also strongly shaped by the institutional environment the organizations are integrated into.

Are you interested in knowing how to make a success of social innovation in a network?
Take a look at the LebensPhasenHaus by going to the website www.lebensphasenhaus.de/en [1] – a project involving experts from the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Social and Technological Innovation.