Steinbeis experts look into different ways to dovetail technological and social innovations
Innovations are thought up by people on behalf of people. Despite emphasis on technological progress, it is increasingly important to keep social factors in mind, especially in times of digital transformation. This is because digital transformation entails three key factors – automation, networking, and decentralization – and not only are these changing business and our working lives today, they will continue to do so for years to come. Of course nobody can predict for sure what exactly will change or how, especially given the fact that technological change leads to further, major challenges on a societal level – such as demographic change, globalization, climate change, and finite resources. But one thing we do know: We will have to use innovations to cope with all these challenges. Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum and the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Social and Technological Innovation are showing that technological and social innovations are not “either/or,” but can work together successfully hand in hand.
It’s precisely because innovations are thought up by people and for other people that one needs to keep major societal changes and challenges in mind. There are important issues to consider such as usefulness to society. To do this, one needs an understanding of innovation, not only in terms of its technological, non-technological, and social role, but also with regard to how innovations serve the needs of society. Even if something does – at first – succeed commercially, that does not necessarily mean it makes sense for the economy as a whole, or that it is actually welcome in societal terms.
Social innovation: added value for society
Social innovation can be seen as targeted reconfigurations of social practices, which are not only better at solving problems or needs than if they were based on established practices (Howaldt et al. 2008: 65), but are “therefore worth copying and institutionalizing” (Zapf 1989: 177). This makes it possible for social innovation to make a significant contribution to societal advancement. Social innovations also influence whether a technological invention will become a wide-scale innovation, in which directions it spreads out, through which channels, and any impact this will have. After all, an innovation should come with two ingredients: invention and diffusion. It is about a new idea, a new product, a new process, a new service, and how these are transferred from one person to another. Ultimately it’s also about how it will become established in the market and spread out. Social innovations are, on the one hand, about new ways of meeting societal challenges – ideas that are accepted and adopted by affected people, groups, and organizations. Technological innovations can therefore also be social innovations. On the other hand, they also help many technological developments to become more widespread.
Study confirms the importance of social innovation
Social innovations address different social needs, for example in areas such as health care or with respect to structural change in rural areas. Working in collaboration with the Centre for Social Investment (CSI) at the University of Heidelberg, Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum conducted a study on behalf of the Baden-Wuerttemberg Ministry of Economic Affairs, Labour, and Housing to explore the economic and technological importance of specific types of social innovations. The project coordinators selected 19 out of 100 possible social innovations for investigation. “This allowed us to use specific examples to show that focusing on social needs and achieving commercial success are by no means counterproductive, but instead can mutually underpin one another,” highlights Dr. Victoria Blessing, who coordinated the study as the project manager at Steinbeis-Europa-Zentrum. The study identified social innovations developed by existing firms as well as social innovations that would go on to become the starting point for setting up businesses – some of which were extremely successful.
One example is AfB, which was set up on the basis of a social innovation: “Processing IT hardware and deleting data with employees with disabilities.” In the meantime, it has grown into a medium-sized business enterprise. One key factor dictating the success of this company is its robust business model. IT hardware has a limited life cycle, so AfB picks up used hardware directly from companies before deleting data in the hardware and reprocessing the equipment. It then sells this equipment to end users through its own outlets, and in some cases it sells equipment directly back to companies. AfB places emphasis on linking commercial thinking with social entrepreneurship. This is because it needs to be commercially successful to achieve its social goals, which entail creating jobs for people with disabilities.
Another example is DB Regio, an existing company that developed the Medibus – a kind of mobile medical practice using converted city buses. The buses contain an examination room and a registration area, as well as telehealth solutions provided by CISCO. The Medibus can drive out to rural areas and provide patients with medical care which they would otherwise only be able to receive by traveling long distances. There is strong interest in the Medibus and it has already entered successful operation. Examples of organizations that have used the bus include the Charité hospital in Berlin and the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians in Hesse.
The entire study – New Technology and Social Innovation – has now been published by Steinbeis-Edition and includes outlines of further social innovations and the research findings.
Technical and social innovation spanning multiple generations: The LifePhaseHouse
Another Steinbeis Transfer Center (STC) that has been looking into the overlaps between technological and social innovations is the center of Social and Technological Innovation at the University of Tübingen. This STC operates a “LifePhaseHouse” at the University of Tübingen to demonstrate how these principles work in practice. The facility is funded by partners in industry and politics, science, and the general public. The house provides a location for research, demonstrations, and knowledge-sharing, allowing users to work shoulder to shoulder with developers, producers, and service providers on solutions that do as much as possible to promote a long and healthy life of self-determination, all within a person’s own four walls – during all stages of life.
The teams also try out – and bring to life – new services, technological support systems, and solutions capable of providing everyday help. “If people are interested, they can come and gain an impression of the multitude of possible uses these offer. And if anyone wants to, they can also get actively involved in shaping innovations,” explains Prof. Dr. Daniel Buhr, co-director of the Steinbeis Transfer Center for Social and Technological Innovation. They can do this by offering direct feedback or working on one of the many research projects. The building is also used by the manual trades, architects, care workers, physicians, producers, insurance companies, local authorities, associations, and educational establishments for training courses and different events.
Innovations jump out of the woodwork in the LifePhaseHouse thanks to large-scale international research projects, small workshops involving local craftsmen, or development projects conducted by medium-sized enterprises in the fields of medical technology, pharmaceuticals or the electronics industry. The center also offers seminars on Design Thinking through social enterprises, runs co-creation workshops with small focus groups, and even organizes entire evaluation projects with several hundred participants. Its activities range from barrier-free design to the development of new business models, digital platforms, service innovations for the so-called silver economy, and even acceptance studies on avatars in health care or the use of artificial intelligence for enhanced diagnostics.
Innovations offering potential
Social innovations offer considerable potential for social, technological, and commercial development. They are not just theoretical concepts; they can be applied as concrete approaches to innovation and business development – and deliver significant benefit to all of us. To exploit this potential, innovations have to be looked at and developed from a broad perspective, and end users need to be involved in this process. If commercial, technological, and social determinants can be seen not as antagonists but as protagonists, new alliances can be formed beyond the confines of specific topics and innovations – and such alliances can deliver major benefit.