Responsible innovation in industry: Learning from social entrepreneurship

Rob Lubberink

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Responsible innovation is a new approach to control and direct innovation towards an ethically acceptable, societally desirable and sustainable direction, which requires deliberative forms of stakeholder engagement upstream in the innovation process. However it is questionable whether, and unknown how, this ‘ideal’ can be applied in a business context. This PhD thesis therefore aims to: 1) clarify the concept of responsible innovation so that it can hold for business contexts, and 2) to identify strategies for implementing responsible innovation in a business context in general, and an entrepreneurship context in particular.

The theoretical investigation starts with conceptual analyses to identify similarities and dissimilarities between responsible-, social- and sustainable innovation. This is complemented with a systematic literature review of 72 empirical articles to identify, analyse and synthesise responsible-, social- and sustainable innovation practices in a business context. Subsequently a self-assessment questionnaire is developed for empirical investigation of de facto responsible innovation processes in a business context. The empirical part starts with an exploratory empirical study to identify and describe different typologies of innovation processes by 39 social entrepreneurs. This part is complemented with qualitative content analyses of 42 profile descriptions to identify successful strategies to integrate normative substantive values into innovation outcomes.

The results indicate that multiple conceptual similarities exist between responsible-, social- and sustainable innovation. However, responsible innovation also addresses detrimental implications of innovation, aims to respond to innovation uncertainties, and aims for a democratic governance of the innovation. The systematic literature review synthesis resulted in a refined framework for responsible innovation supported with empirically informed strategies for each of its dimensions. The results from content analyses show that social entrepreneurs focus on creating direct socio-ethical value for their target beneficiaries, and coordinate collective stakeholder action to develop, implement and scale their systems-changing solutions. Their bottom-up innovations are evaluated and scaled for impact, and institutional support is sought to create top-down systems change. The questionnaire results show that there are four different governance approaches to develop responsible systems-changing solutions for societal problems.

The conclusion can be drawn that responsible innovation can learn from social- and sustainable innovation to prevent reinvention of the wheel. Responding to grand challenges with innovation requires coordinated collective action but a democratic governance of innovation cannot be realistically expected in a business context. Furthermore, social entrepreneurs develop de facto responsible innovation outcomes that respond to grand challenges and four different approaches to develop such innovations can be discerned. Moreover, to innovate for society requires an entrepreneurship logic that does not only focus on development of innovation, but equally on implementing and scaling for impact.

Future studies should not only focus on the development of innovation but should pay equal attention to its implementation and scaling for impact. Furthermore, future responsible innovation research should focus less on a democratic governance of innovation and more on how to create direct value for target beneficiaries who experience societal problems or have pressing social needs.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Omta, S.W.F., Promotor
  • Blok, Vincent, Co-promotor
  • van Ophem, J.A.C., Co-promotor
Award date26 Jan 2018
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789463432320
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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