Definitions and key concepts

crédit photo Ian Schneider

As social innovation is an emerging field in Switzerland, here are some useful definitions. 

Are you a social entrepreneur or a social innovation expert ? Do you have any comments and/or suggestions on these definitions ? 

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What is social innovation? 

Social innovation is defined as the development of effective responses to social and environmental problems, that are complex and systemic, in the collective interest (adapted from Soule, Malhotra, Clavier. Center for Social Innovation, Stanford University). 

 It aims to improve the wellbeing of the population by tackling dysfunctional systems. In a way, social innovation R&D for society as a whole.
Social innovation affects not only the consequences of a problem, but also its root causes. 

Take, for example, the ever-increasing cost of healthcare in Switzerland: Providing larger subsidies would be acting on the consequences of the problem. Acting on the root causes, on the other hand, could mean transforming the billing system for medical procedures or implementing preventive health measures. 

    Examples of social innovation  

    How is it different from “standard” innovation? 

    Unlike classical economic ways of thinking – where the aim of innovation is to gain a competitive, and therefore individual advantagesocial innovation tends to benefit society as a whole, or at least a large part of it. Thus, “the common good is not just the sum of individual interests. It is a collective effort to live in society” ( 

    As a result, impact measurement also differs greatly from “standard” innovation approaches. Impact indicators may be financial savings for the government, the inclusion of marginalized groups of people, or the preservation of a fragile natural ecosystem. They are generally more difficult to quantify and observe over the longer term. 

    Some other definitions  

    Common good 

    That which benefits society as a whole, in contrast to the private good of individuals and social groups (Encyclopedia Britannica). Using the doughnut model (Raworth, 2017), the common good can also be defined as that which consolidates the social foundation while respecting planetary boundaries. 

    Social entrepreneurship 

    The process of creating and developing an organization, whether for-profit or not, aimed at tackling a social or environmental problem (Tracey & Stott, 2017).

    Social intrapreneurship 

    The process of tackling a social or environmental problem within established organizations (public or private) (Tracey & Stott, 2017). 

    Systems change 

    Although there is no universal definition, there is widespread consensus around a few essential elements : 

    • Addressing the root causes rather than the symptoms of problems 
    • by modifying, changing and transforming 
    • structures, customs, mentalities, power dynamics, and rules 
    • through collaboration between a diverse set of stakeholders 
    • with the intention of achieving sustainable improvement in social problems at local, national or global level, for the greatest number of people (Ashoka & al., 2020). 


    An interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something (Meadows, 2008). 

    Almost everything is a system. The human body, for example, is made up of numerous elements such as muscles, bones, organs, veins, and arteries interconnected by ligaments, hormones, and other means, all working together towards a common goal: to keep us alive. 

    The education system is another. The elements here would be students, teachers, parents, and cantonal departments of education, among others, linked together by laws and regulations at school level, with the common goal of educating the younger generation.