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Social Innovation in Sustainable Urban Development

Institute of Geography/Georg-Simmel Center for Metropolitan Studies, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany
Sustainability 2022, 14(9), 5414;
Received: 27 April 2022 / Accepted: 28 April 2022 / Published: 30 April 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Social Innovation in Sustainable Urban Development)
The publication of a Special Issue on social innovation is not without surprise. The topic has already been widely researched [1] and critically analyzed [2], including in connection to sustainable urban development [3]. Some aspects were to be expected, for example, the discussion about smart cities, including the relationship between technological and social innovation. However, readers may not anticipate the topic of urban heritage, which now occupies some space in this Special Issue. One paper discusses a former convent in Naples, which was later repurposed as a prison and can now be used as a community space thanks to a civic bottom-up initiative and legislative change [4]. This obviously has a lot to do with urban society, identity, and social innovation.
What is social innovation? Probably, the best-known definition of social innovation is: “…innovations that are social in both their ends and their means” [5]. Social innovation is intended to serve the common good. Models of social innovation, as propagated at the EU Commission level, include social entrepreneurship or social experimentation [6]. However, from my point of view, in these cases, it would be more appropriate, for the time being, to speak of social invention rather than innovation. According to Schumpeter [7,8], from whom our modern understanding of innovation derives, an invention must have proven itself in practice and in the market in order to be considered an innovation. Therefore, the initial question in the call for papers for this Special Issue was: How can a city advance from social invention to social innovation to achieve sustainable urban development (SUD)?
My assumption was that we need more institutional innovation to advance SUD [9]. This seemed to me particularly necessary to promote the diffusion of social innovation and thus ensure its success. One example was participatory budgeting, as it had developed in Brazil and—due to its sufficient degree of institutionalization—became transferable throughout South America [10]. In the discussions on innovation, particularly in the context of smart cities, social innovation is sometimes seen as secondary. The argument is that any successful technological innovation involves a social innovation, since—in order to be successful—it must change people’s behavior. In contrast, protagonists of social innovation emphasize that social innovation is, first and foremost, pro-social innovation and adds value for the community. Thus, we can consider the potential tension between technological and social innovation as another dimension of international sustainability policy—besides the global vs. local and North vs. South dimensions [9].
The articles that make up this Special Issue cover a wide range thematically and geographically. The authors come from Africa, Asia, and Europe, and the case studies also involve Australia and North America. South America remains a blind spot in our Special Issue. The themes range from smart cities [11,12,13] and heritage [4,14] to policy options for regions in transition [13,15,16,17]. In my call for papers, I raised five specific questions to which the submitted papers made valuable contributions:
(1) New, successful models of urban governance for city administration and sustainable urban development (SUD): Indeed, such examples of new governance models for SUDs can be found, but they are usually earmarked, such as for wastewater management in Milan [18] or urban rehabilitation through targeted support for coworking among the creative industries in Lisbon [19].
(2) Innovation forms and discourses on social vs. technological innovation in SUD: There is a discussion of forms of innovation in the context of people-centered smart city approaches. Calzada [12] sees social and technological innovation as a means of policy experimentation to implement digital rights for citizens (in the sense of institutional innovation). In the context of urban planning, Grafe and Mieg [18] argue that financial innovation is used as a means to both circumvent and achieve SUD. Huang et al. [16] present institutional innovation in the context of informal land use practices in China.
(3) Diffusion of social innovation for SUD: Erdogan et al. [20] discuss the diffusion of social innovation from urban to rural contexts to help disadvantaged youth. Alterman and Pellach [21] provide a global overview of legal options to ensure access to water, and show impressive evidence of how formal innovations are transferable. In a similar vein, the development of indices for evaluating citizen-centered innovation proves transferable, such as in the context of smart cities [11].
(4) The moral dimension of social innovation: The call for papers allowed for contrasting perspectives on the question: Do we need better citizens or better institutions? The contributions to our Special Issue show great moral restraint; the focus is on economic and legal control. An important topic is inclusion, e.g., of NEETs (i.e., persons not in employment, education, or training) [20], or vulnerable groups (such as in Lisbon, [19]). Tan et al. [13] state that innovative governance of socio-technical transition, which relies on entrepreneurship, would also need to be supplemented by a (pro-)social dimension.
(5) The role of design in social innovation and SUD: This theme was included because architecture and planning also provided impulses for the discussion on social innovations [22]; unfortunately, there were no contributions on this subject. Figure 1 presents an overview of the topics addressed in our Special Issue, from which it can be seen that mobility and transportation are a task area that also fosters social innovation for SUD [13,17].
Finally, I would like to return to the general question: Does SUD need a transition from social to institutional innovation? It turns out that it is precisely the area of legal innovation that can greatly promote their transfer. However, our papers also show that the solutions should be simultaneously robust and flexible. Resilience is the keyword here. An exemplary resilient solution is the development of urban ecosystems, supported by bottom-up processes and institutionalized by community-based organizations [4,14,19]. What we learn from this Special Issue is that, instead of a comprehensive integrative SUD, robust sectoral solutions—or even phased solutions—are more likely to be sought. It seems all the more important to me that these solutions, in order to be transferable, should also be given a formal structure.
I would like to thank all the authors who contributed to this Special Issue. I am also grateful to the EU OpenHeritage project, whose support allowed this Special Issue to be completed with the care it deserved. It would have been presumptuous to seek a clear answer on the sustainability of socially innovative processes for urban development through just a collection of articles. However, it was invaluable to see that new tasks are coming into play, such as adaptive reuses of urban heritage, which both rely on socially innovative processes and contribute to sustainable urban development. It is also encouraging to see that there are cities such as Lisbon and Milan in which municipalities are open to innovative and sustainable urban development. As is true of innovations in general, for many of the examples and ideas gathered in this Special Issue, we require a few more years in order to clearly assess how socially innovative and sustainable they may prove to be.


This project received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 776766.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Figure 1. Word cloud of keywords for the articles in this Special Issue (with minor alterations, introduced by:, accessed on 26 April 2022).
Figure 1. Word cloud of keywords for the articles in this Special Issue (with minor alterations, introduced by:, accessed on 26 April 2022).
Sustainability 14 05414 g001
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