Social Innovation

Current research projects

About the project: The shortage of care staff and volunteers, few digital support systems and the strong pressure on informal caregivers pose major challenges for service providers, informal caregivers and communities in the Danube region which they cannot overcome alone, especially in rural areas. The Caring Communities project therefore aims to build capacity by promoting cooperation between public and private actors and transnational cooperation in order to bring about change in homecare and community-based services and thus improve the quality of life of people in need of care in the Danube region.


About the project: Under which political, economic and social framework conditions do realignments in the welfare sector take place? Which social, political and professional actors are significantly involved? Which social framework conditions are relevant for these processes? And how do the different levels of social action interact?

Funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the German Research Foundation, the research project ITISS (Innovation Trajectories in Social Services) addresses these questions. To this end, it analyses socially innovative approaches in addiction and disability aid in the last decades, comparing Switzerland and Germany. The project will thus provide important insights for all those involved in processes that meet the key challenges of our time with social innovations.

About the project: The project „GIs – Strengthening Societal Innovation Capacities“ analyses societal innovation capacities in less developed regions. It aims at developing explanations and models to understand how innovations that promote a successful regional transformation are generated. Furthermore, the project develops instruments and measurement approaches for an innovation policy that integrates and promotes societal innovation capacities. Against this background, GIs analyses three overarching research questions:

  • What are the characteristics of complex and systemic innovation processes at the regional level?
  • How can less developed regions make use of innovation to shape structural change and development?
  • How can societal innovation capabilities be utilised to facilitate sustainable transformation in less developed regions?

About the project: “Social innovation” is not a new term in innovation research and has gained importance and attention as many hopes rest on its capacity to deal with the major challenges that societies are facing. The research field is characterized by conceptual ambiguity and understands Social Innovation (SI) i.a. as a mechanism for problem-solving or a more general change in social practices. The impact of Social Innovation is difficult to grasp as well: Even at the level of individual organizations, current research shows significant blind spots. Indicators and metrics in the field of social innovation are only emerging. Although there have been attempts to systematically develop a social innovation metric (IndiSi, IndiSiPlus), these are currently still in an exploratory phase and primarily relate to measuring social innovations and less to assessing their effects and added social value. On the other hand, the research field of (technology) impact assessment offers valuable and well-tried approaches to measuring innovation impact.

The central aim of the project “Impact of Social Innovations” (ISI), which is co-financed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), is to create significant theoretical and empirical advances in uncovering the impact of social innovations by linking the research fields of Social Innovation and impact assessment.

About the project: IndiSI – Indikatorik Soziale Innovationen explores new forms of innovation, specifically social innovations. Based on the framework model of social innovation developed in TEPSIE, the focus is on the development and testing of an indicator on three levels: (1) organisational innovation; (2) regional innovation capacities; and (3) early indicators for the resonance and trend potential of projects in social media and start-up activities.

With the extension of the innovation indicators to include new innovation actors and types and the testing of alternative approaches, a new database for research and innovation policy is provided which is sensitive to new forms of innovation and new innovation actors and thus provides an evidence base for policy, research and practice (e.g. economic promotion, innovators, intermediaries, welfare organisations).

About the project: "Rural Urban Nutrient Partnership (RUN)" is an inter- and transdisciplinary research project that develops and practically tests approaches and visions of a partnership between farmers and urban residents. The aim is to close the nutrient cycle between regional urban and landscape areas. To this end, a nutrient partnership is to be established between cities and the agricultural areas surrounding them. We are convinced that city dwellers and farmers are—metaphorically speaking—in the same boat: the waste water and organic waste of some are the fertilizers of others. Urban and rural lifestyles are therefore more closely connected than many people are aware. This view was known for a long time, but has been successively lost in the course of urbanisation.

In connection with the reestablishment of this knowledge, the CSI wants to investigate mentalities in the field of hygiene and health as well as the consequences of the social embedding of new wet technologies. In addition, data on consumer acceptance of agricultural products produced from waste water using novel fertilizers will be collected.

Completed research projects

About the project: The Interreg project D-Care Labs developed innovation structures to promote social-innovative solutions in the field of home care within the Danube region. D-Care Labs responded to the societal challenges of increased home care needs for the elderly, children and people with disabilities. The aim of the project was to sustainably implement social innovation labs in nine partner countries in a transnational network with social service providers and associations. For this purpose, specialized macro-regional D-Care Lab innovation structures were created, enabling social service providers, product developers and social start-ups to implement social entrepreneurial solutions.

As part of the Transnational Lab, the CSI provided an incubator to build innovation labs and structures. It conducted a series of workshops in several parts as a lead partner, in which methods and knowledge for setting up innovation labs were imparted and further developed in a joint exchange of experience. Core topics were, for example, the analysis of regional needs, the development of business models for social innovation labs, the identification of necessary resources and network structures as well as instruments for impact measurement. With the help of this approach, nine regional D-Care Labs for the development of social entrepreneurial solutions were established and scientifically accompanied in their development.

About the project: The project FASI – Impact Assessment of Social Innovations was dealing with the current state of research on the long-term effects of social innovations on behalf of the BMBF. Unlike technical innovations, where technology assessment approaches are regularly used, impact assessments in the context of social innovations have been uncommon so far. In research, however, there were already debates about (potential) "social impacts" of social innovation. For example, functional and transformative consequences of individual social innovations were discussed, methodologically the appropriate levels of analysis were negotiated, and the Social Innovation program itself was questioned about its so-called "dark side".

The final report provides an overview of the state of the debates and the central issues on the basis of a Systematic Literature Review. In addition, future perspectives are opened up by identifying elements of good practice as well as starting points and suggestions for further development of the concepts that already exist in some cases. FASI was a cooperation of JOANNEUM RESEARCH POLICIES and the CSI of the University of Heidelberg on behalf of the BMBF.

Publication: Mildenberger, Georg; Schimpf, Gudrun-Christine; Streicher, Jürgen (2020): Social Innovation Assessment? Reflections on the impacts of social innovation on society - Outcomes of a systematic literature review. In: EPSIR 5 (2), S. 1–13. DOI: 10.31637/epsir.20-2.1.

Contact: Dr. Georg Mildenberger, Dr. Gudrun-Christine Schimpf

About the project: The subject was the implementation of a Europe-wide study in the field of social innovations. Social innovations were examined in detail, which have both economic relevance and technical aspects. This study included interviews with selected innovations as well as visits to ten of these innovations. An important point here was, among other things, the existing funding programs and initiatives that supported these innovations. The study particularly highlighted the success factors, and based on this, recommendations for action were given on how social innovations can be supported, especially in Baden-Württemberg. The results and five successful case studies of social innovations were presented at a workshop. Since the focus of the study was explicitly on social innovations with economic relevance, the recommendations for action to support them were also of economic importance.

Contact: Dr. Georg Mildenberger

About the project: The project explored how politics and (civil) society can improve the lives of the most excluded citizens in the EU. An international research consortium with universities and research institutes in Oxford (project coordination), Budapest, Delft, Greifswald, Pavia, Tampere and Vienna investigated how social innovations can counter such exclusion. Theoretical foundations included Amartya Sen's Capability Approach, the German sociologist Jens Beckert's Social Grid Model, and the historical sociologist Michael Mann's analysis model of social power structures.

About the project: The ITSSOIN project—funded by the European Commission—was based on the assumption that the impact of the third sector on socio-economic developments in Europe can be captured through its role in the creation of social innovation. The project explored the impact of the third sector and civil society engagement on society. The focus was on the role of social innovation in the development of this impact. Based on an empirical portrait of the third sector in nine countries, the influence of structural characteristics of non-profit organizations and civil society engagement on social innovation was investigated.

The book "Social Innovation – Comparative Perspectives" by Helmut K. Anheier, Gorgi Krlev & Georg Mildenberger was produced as part of the project. The book was awarded the "Best Book 2019 Award" of the Academy of Management's (AOM) Public and Nonprofit Division in 2019.

About the project: In recent years it has become increasingly clear that all countries of the European Union have to deal with social problems of a similar nature: Climate change, impoverishment and precarisation, demographic change and integration are all problems that European societies must solve. Against this background, an international consortium at the European level worked in the research project "The Theoretical, Empirical and Policy Foundations for Building Social Innovation in Europe" (TEPSIE) on a strategy for the entire European Union to promote innovative solutions to social problems and to develop practical and theoretical foundations for social innovation.