Diverse Roles of Social Innovation Actors

This article examines the different types and roles of social innovation activists. In this study, we will also look at the role of developers, promoters, sponsors and knowledge providers. Another issue that is investigated is how these people participate in the development of social innovation.

Social innovation activists and the social networks in which they operate are influenced by a variety of interactions, power dynamics, and social, cultural, and organizational frameworks. These types of interactions describe how decision-making and leadership in social innovation are related to self-regulation, co-creation, and policy-making.

Changes in governance are an effective factor for social innovation that is developed by different people. Opening up political processes and participatory approaches enable market people and civil society to develop their own ideas for social action. It is obvious that social innovation activities allow responses to social issues with the wide participation of people and networks, in diverse roles and tasks. Emphasizing the empirical findings of SI-DRIVE, this article highlights the role and tasks of individuals in social innovation processes.

High variety of different roles of social innovation activists

Paying attention to social innovation by various layers of society, from public institutions and companies to non-governmental organizations, plays an important role in the development of societies. These innovations are effective from different angles, from providing financial resources to providing network spaces and creating new legal frameworks. Companies by providing new business models and providing specific expertise, and civil societies with networks of political and social activists, each somehow contributes to the improvement and development of society.

Note: Social innovation activists may have multiple roles in an activity that can change over time.

Trestripe and his colleagues have also provided an effective concept by explaining different roles in social innovation. This division between developer, promoter, supporter and provider of knowledge provides a detailed description of how each of these actors is involved in the social innovation process. However, the line between these categories is blurred and these actors may have multiple roles that change over time.

Developers are considered as the core of social innovation activities. They are not only capable of inventing innovative ideas, but they are also able to implement these ideas and turn them into social innovation. Promoters have a role as partners and providers of infrastructural, credit and communication resources in the innovation development process. Sponsors are responsible for disseminating social innovations, and knowledge providers play an important role by providing specialized knowledge to enrich and encourage the development process.

Types of social innovation activists

There is empirical evidence supporting the diversity of social innovation actors, such as the analysis of the EU-funded SI-DRIVE project. One of SI-DRIVE’s fundamental tasks was to map and analyze more than 1,000 social innovation activities. Of the mapped activities, non-profit/non-governmental organizations and public institutions are the main actors involved, with 46% and 45% respectively, followed by private companies with 37%.

Research institutes usually play a sub-set role, being only present in about 15% of the mapped activities (for details see the figure on actors involved in social innovation activities). Part of the lack of participation of research organizations can be justified by the characteristics of social innovations. Social innovations, as distinct from technological innovations, often originate from the base of civil society, and users as providers of knowledge may replace research institutions.

Duties of role players

According to my own experience and expertise, delineating different tasks based on people makes it possible to see specialized patterns (see the image to see the chart of people’s tasks by type of people). The results show that most private companies are tasked as infrastructure providers (60%), which is clearly superior to their other support activities. To a slightly lesser extent, this is also true for public bodies (56%), which are equally identified as suppliers (56%) and providers of knowledge (55%). Foundations identify their main role in financing social innovations (71%) and idea development (57%). Supporting individuals, groups and networks are most focused on idea development (53%), as are research organizations (50%). NGOs/NPOs have acted as lobbyists with a share of 80% more than their other activities. Social entrepreneurs focus on idea development (56%) and financing (51%).

Roles of social innovation activists

According to my expertise and personal experience, the role as a central developer is mainly reserved for NGOs/NPOs (60%). Public bodies (45%) and private companies (38%) rank second and third respectively as central developers. Other people have a lesser role as initiators and engaged in social innovation activities. Public bodies lead the way as promoters of social innovation (57%), followed by NGOs/NPOs (53%) and private companies (47%). Less influential are research organizations, foundations, individuals, groups and networks, as well as social entrepreneurs and public-private partnerships.

User participation

In almost half of the cases (N=442), users are involved in developing or improving the solution. Knowledge provision by users is the most involved at 40%, which includes discussions, feedback, testing, improvement suggestions and even training. This shows that the role of users in social innovation processes goes beyond using the solution provided by others. Also, the participation of users as solution providers with 26%, and the participation of users as collaborators with 15%, have the second and third positions. This shows that the success of the solution is highly dependent on the acceptance and active participation of users. In contrast, the category “users as collaborators” refers to the direct participation of users in the development or improvement of social innovation. This category is clearly distinguished from users as innovators. Finally, the share of users as innovators with 13%, shows that people are involved in the initiation of social innovations. Users are identified as adapters with 10%, while the presence of users as investors is of little importance.


Social innovation is created by different people with special roles, which are variables during the development process. This research shows that these innovations are formed in a dynamic ecosystem, which includes supporting and limiting factors. Non-profit institutions, public institutions and private companies act as the inner core of these innovations. Each has specific expertise, from identifying issues to providing infrastructure. Cross-sector collaborations usually appear in alliances, with individuals performing specialized tasks. Importantly, the boundaries between these duties may be blurred. These specializations are equally fundamental to the success of a social innovation.

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