In the last decade, a renewed interest on the concept of social innovation in the academic literature, particularly in the fields of innovation, social economics, public governance and territorial development, has emerged. Social innovation has been seen as a way to address the Grand Challenges of the 21st century, a new class of contemporary problems not solvable exclusively via more economic growth as, for example, inequality in income distribution; mass urbanisation and social exclusion phenomena; high rates of youth unemployment; ageing of population; and climate change. Solving these Grand Challenges demands new forms of social organisation and new social capacities, contributing to human welfare whilst respecting the earth’s ecological limits, creating collective action and co-ordination and providing resilience against these new challenges.
In spite of these developments around the meaning of social innovation, the research team contends that two major gaps are found in the literature, and contributing to solve them is the main purpose of this research project. Firstly, although there is already a significant amount of research about the concept of social innovation, there is a lack of research about the process dimension of social innovation and, particularly, about the role universities might play in that process. There has been a failure in university-society engagement literature to address social innovation because of problems in finding quick indicators to capture performance. Although universities’ activities around technology transfer and knowledge exchange (and how this process develops) is well understood in the literature, other kinds of university knowledge contributions to drive wider societal development is less well understood. A second related gap is the shortage of academic research about the metrics (or indicators) best suited to assess the impact of social innovation initiatives or practices. Measuring this impact is a very significant challenge for researchers as social innovation is a complex process and research in this area has not yet reached the level of metrics (or indicators) used in the context of technological and/or economic innovation (e.g. R&D expenditure, number of patents, graduates in science and technology, value added).
Therefore, the two overarching goals of this research project are:

   •  to propose a conceptual framework to understand how the process of social innovation works;
   •  to propose a methodological framework to identify metrics/indicators that allow measuring the impact of social innovation initiatives/projects, contributing to inform policy decision-making.

The project will be undertaken by a multidisciplinary research team with expertise in economics, innovation management, and social impact assessment, experience in publishing in this area, and experience with internationally competitive research projects, under FCT and the European Framework programme support.