Print this page

The Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna - Applying Social Science and Research to Improve Societal Development

bridges vol. 19, October 2008 / Feature Article

By Josef Hochgerner

{enclose Vol.19_Hochgerner.mp3}

Introducing the concept of social innovation

Josef Hochgerner

”Innovation” is considered to be any new product or process, based on superior technology or recombination of technologies, that leads to economic success in existing or new markets. In the wake of pioneering concepts developed by Joseph Schumpeter , innovation plays a major role in public debates and policies aiming at economic growth in contemporary society.
The present – and the future even more so – appears to be inundated with technical innovations whose social relevance and consequences are increasingly far-reaching. They affect a growing number of people at work, in business, in everyday life, and in leisure time. As a consequence, the quality of people’s lives, as well as the functioning of social institutions and governments, depends more than ever on technologies – more precisely, on “socio-technical systems.” The faster the progress of technology and its impact on society, the more social development necessitates social innovations, i.e., new concepts and measures to resolve societal challenges, adopted and utilized by social groups and institutions concerned.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}
Social innovations are essential for the development of a society. To assure a dynamic, yet at the same time cohesive society, the growing potentials of technical feasibility must be tuned to socially compatible reforms and human needs. Yet, as a matter of course, social innovations are not only spun off as a result of foregoing technological progress: Social innovations are part of social change, and accordingly are interrelated with power structures, communication, and cultural features in society, and are affected by historical, regional, and other influences.

Social innovations that deal with current and future challenges of society are neither a contradiction to technological innovations, nor are they subordinate to them. Just as new products and processes are only considered “innovations” when they become marketable, social innovations must bring a sustained benefit for their target audiences. When implemented they operate more effectively and function better than previous or other novel concepts (for example a new pension- or health-system, teaching methods, labor regulations, peace mediation).
Social ideas become social innovations as they contribute to resolving specific issues and satisfying needs that are present within the society. Yet beyond solutions in particular cases, social innovations also influence the adaptation and further governance of social development in general. The implementation of social innovations is relevant to guiding changes in the civil society, but also in public administration, political institutions, business, and social partners’ organizations.

Social innovation matters

The European Commission and the European Parliament are calling to make the year 2009 the “Year of Creativity and Innovation,” whereby “all forms of innovation, including … social innovation should be taken into account” (cf. ). It is people, brains and minds acting in particular social systems, that produce ideas and innovations. The global society of the 21st century requires fundamental social innovations enabling individuals and organizations to make the best use of technologies and productivity. Numerous small and large social domains that influence the lives of individuals, as well as the development of a global society, need surges of social innovation.
Since about the year 2000, the importance of social innovations has been increasingly perceived worldwide. Centers for Social Innovation opened their doors at Stanford University in 2000 , in Toronto in 2004 , and in the Netherlands in 2006 . The Young Foundation in London is concerned with social innovation , as are some organizations and events on the topic that emerged or took place in Europe recently. All this proves how appropriate it was to look ahead and get prepared for the future when the ZSI was founded in Vienna in 1990.

Operating in the field of social innovation: Objectives and achievements of the ZSI


The Vienna-based Centre for Social Innovation (Zentrum für Soziale Innovation, ZSI) is a self-governed private non-profit association under Austrian law. After steady growth and expansion of its capacities and competencies, ZSI employs a staff of approximately 50 experts with a variety of scientific, professional and national backgrounds. Biennially, the governing board is elected by the General Assembly of members and consists of a scientific director, a business executive, and three heads of unit. The units pursue research, education, networking, and advisory services to promote the public good, advancing social innovations in the following areas of relevance for the global evolution of the knowledge-based information society:

  • Research Policies and Development
  • Technology and Knowledge   
  • Work and Equal Opportunities

The ZSI typically combines research and development of innovations and innovation systems with a focus on societal components and framework requirements, which all too frequently are overshadowed by technological and economic features. Innovations neither primarily nor exclusively evolve from science, but science is increasingly necessary. This is true in social development as well as technology. However, Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) have less of a tradition of applying research results than do the paradigmatic “hard” sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry,…). Therefore, an SSH institute is required to use a specific method of interlinking research and practices in its thematic domains. We call this method of blending science, research, and practices “trans-disciplinarity.”
Trans-disciplinarity goes beyond research cooperation between colleagues from various scientific disciplines (“inter-disciplinarity”) in two ways: a) through cooperating in the practical application and use of knowledge in non-scientific working areas; and b) by integrating insights acquired from practical experience into science teaching and the formation of new methods and theories. Such combination of scientific and practical work requires adequate structures: multi-functionality is the key to the organization of trans-disciplinary cooperation.
To meet these challenges the multi-functional ZSI services include:

  • ZSI as research institute carries out fundamental and applied research, financed by national and international research programs, in cooperation with universities, academic institutions, NGOs, industry, and other research facilities.
  • ZSI as consulting service to public institutions provides administrative support, development, and monitoring of research policies, for example for ministries in Europe and in worldwide networks.
  • ZSI as network coordinator participates in building up comprehensive databases and designs interactive information modules in cooperation with public authorities and international organizations.
  • ZSI as research promoter operates the Austrian Science and Research Liaison Offices. On behalf of the BMWF and on the basis of successful ERA-NET activities, ZSI develops specific calls for research proposals and manages and evaluates funds.
  • ZSI as educational institution offers courses taught by its employees at universities, as well as in vocational education and eLearning, and in a postgraduate course of lectures on professional qualifications for international social scientific research.

ZSI has already progressed quite far in this direction, as can be seen in the different functions along an expanded scientific added-value chain. The added-value chain at ZSI reaches from research to the use of scientific knowledge in various practical areas, and on to the promotion of research and to professional training and academic instruction.
Research and practical activities of the ZSI ultimately aim to foster the following objectives:

  • support a socially, ecologically, and economically sustainable development of the global information society;
  • facilitate the social, cultural, and economic integration in Europe by scientific research and practical implementation of knowledge;
  • improve infrastructures, efficacy, professionalism, and internationalization in social sciences;
  • assist science and research policies to benefit social development in Europe and worldwide by participating in major ERA-NET and INCO-NET projects in the 7th European Framework Program for RTDI.

Concerning the international division of work in science and research, ZSI takes on an important function as bridge and multiplier for the BMWF (Federal Ministry of Science and Research). It acts as the responsible institution for the “Austrian Science and Research Liaison Offices” in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Sofia, Bulgaria, supports the “Steering Platform for Research with the Western Balkan Countries,” and works as a partner to the ministry in strategically important international projects.

Social innovations for internationally balanced societal development

Sciences and scientific research are, as a matter of principle, networked at the international level. Research policy can, therefore, act as a precursor to the internationalization of other areas of politics. This is true for European integration, and for the role of the EU in the world. In ZSI the regional starting points concerning analyses and measures for promoting research for social development focused on Eastern and Southeastern Europe. ZSI’s experiences from many years of focused work in Southeastern Europe are actively adjusted to other regions of the world. International cooperation is currently advancing with Russia and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
In the meantime, global networks for socio-economic collaboration, innovations in trendsetting research areas, and worldwide influences on development policy are moving further to the fore. Therefore additional meeting grounds will also appear to make arrangements for new and intensified collaboration with US and Canadian institutions producing or using scientific knowledge.

Selected best practices of ZSI projects in this area

Together with the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science and Research (BMWF), ZSI actively takes part in dialogue activities of the European Union with partner regions in international cooperation for Research and Development. The European Commission identified six target regions for INCO-NETs (International Cooperation Networks). ZSI is represented in four of the resulting projects, addressing West Balkan Countries, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. In all of these projects ZSI implements scientific analytical work packages together with its partners and is engaged with global challenges.   

A New Profile for the Austrian Science and Research Liaison Offices

Following a public call for tender in 2004, ZSI was commissioned to manage the Austrian Science and Research Liaison Offices (ASO) in Ljubljana/Slovenia and Sofia/Bulgaria. During this change in assignment, the previously existing ASOs were given a new design for their mission and activity profiles. Since then an annual thematic focus has been developed in consultation with the awarding authority, the Federal Ministry of Science and Research (BMWF). Small targeted Calls for Proposal from the operational budget of the ASOs directly support accompanying multilateral research activities between Austrian research institutes and foreign partners, through a transparent selection process. The originally bilateral focus from Austria, in the direction of Bulgaria and Slovenia, was expanded to a regional “West Balkan” focus. In November 2007 ASO Sofia was awarded the “Marin Drinov” prize for its excellent performance, the highest honor that can be given to an institution by the Bulgarian Academy of Science.

New Approaches in the Development of Cooperation

In 2003, ZSI proposed to the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) the establishment of university-based Business-Start-Up Centers within the framework of development projects in Southeastern Europe. On behalf of the ADA, ZSI developed the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the first Business-Start-Up Center at the University of Tuzla (Bosnia-Herzegovina). The set-up of the center commenced in 2004 under the supervision of WUS-Austria (World University Service – Austria). The ToR developed by ZSI were then taken up as a model by the Dutch NGO SPARK for its “Southeast Europe Business Start-Up Network” which began in 2007. Under the Dutch program, four additional Business-Start-Up Centers were established in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. The Business-Start-Up Center at the “Kyrill and Method” University in Skopje was also funded by ADA on the basis of the conceptual work of ZSI.

ZSI activities to enforce the future role of social innovations

In 2008 ZSI is prepared to launch an extensive and enduring “Action Program Social Innovation 2015.”  By 2015, the program plans to promote and achieve a respect for social innovations in the economy and in society, equivalent to the significance and economic value now afforded technological innovations. Until 2015 we wish to use our leading position to provide additional research and to systematically implement new knowledge about social innovation more frequently. By 2015 the topic “social innovation” should be anchored prominently in public debate, and a large number of effective social innovations will be realized in economic, social, and community politics.
Four areas of actions will be prioritized:

  1. Research – Improving the knowledge base concerning social innovations in business, education, foundations, public administration, NGOs, civil society networks, etc.
  2. Mobility – Establishing closer collaboration between science (research) and society (practice) by so-called “Fellowship Teams“ for scientists to work with professional experts, and “Team Scholarships” for M.A. and Ph.D.-researchers.
  3. Education – Developing study programs focusing on social innovation at under- and post-graduate levels.
  4. Promotion – Advancing comprehensive public understanding of “innovation,” including social components, based on an elaborated data-bank documentation of social innovations in different social settings, cultures, countries, and (world) regions.

As middle-term strategy the program “Social innovation 2015” complements the range of ongoing operations to fulfil the vision laid down in our mission statement: “The Centre for Social Innovation (ZSI) is a self-contained, politically independent scientific institution, asserting leadership in Europe to advance social innovation and foster an open and solidly united society.”

To learn more about social innovation and the ZSI, please visit the ZSI’s web site at


The author, Josef Hochgerner, is the founder and Scientific Director of the ZSI (Zentrum für Soziale Innovation, Centre for Social Innovation) in Vienna, Austria.

Recent book publications on topics featured in this article, edited or (co-)authored by ZSI:

Dall, Elke, ed. Science and Technology in the Western Balkans. Reports of the Information Office of the Steering Platform on Research for the Western Balkan Countries. Brno: Barrister & Principal, 2008.   ISBN 978-3-200-01190-8

Gajdusek, Felix M., Andrea C. Mayr, and Miroslav Polzer, eds. Science Policy and Human Resources Development in Southeastern Europe in the Context of European Integration. Vienna: Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture, 2006.   ISBN 3-85224-132-4

Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Forschung, ed. Innovation and Research in Bulgaria on the Eve of EU Accession: Lessons from a Peer Country – Austria. Wien-Graz: NWV, 2007.  ISBN 978-3-7083-0447-2

Hochgerner, Josef, and Irena Cornejová, eds. Communication in International R&D Projects. A Perspective from Social Sciences and Humanities. Brno: Barrister & Principal, 2008.   ISBN 978-80-8729-28-2

Schuch, Klaus. The Integration of Central Europe into the European System of Research – An Empirical Study of the Participation of Central European Countries in the 4th and 5th European Framework Programme for RTD. Vienna/Mülheim: Verlag Guthmann-Peterson, 2005.   ISBN 3-900782-51-2

Svensson, Lennart, and Barbro Nilsson, eds. Partnership as a Strategy for Social Innovation and Sustainable Change. Stockholm: Santérus Academic Press, 2008.   ISBN 978-91-7335-011-2