Social innovation in times of war


Social Innovation Insights

What role can social innovation play in times of war and crisis? Is social innovation best suited to solve problems of societies that are not at war or facing deep crises?


Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24th, 2022 and launched the beginning of a cruel, brutal war that continues to inflict incredible suffering, pain, trauma, and loss for the people in Ukraine. The ruthlessness of the attack, especially the targeted bombing and shelling of civilians, leaves one appalled. The international community is shocked and aghast at the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding. Since the beginning of this war coincided with the process of finding the winning projects of the SozialMarie, it was time to take a step back and ask: what role can social innovation play in times of war and crisis? Does social innovation become useless or senseless when powerful armed forces attack civilians? Is social innovation an unnecessary distraction when humanitarian assistance needs to be foremost immediate, efficient, and effective? Is social innovation best suited to solve problems of societies that are not at war or facing deep crises?

The answers to these questions are very complex, and we might only be able to answer them in the future. However, we can take a look at the past to find some hints about the role of (social) innovation in times of war and crisis. Historically –  as cruel as this sounds – war has been a driver for innovation, especially technological innovation. These innovations often have atrocious impacts, such as weapons systems. However, some of these technological innovations, such as GPS (Global Positioning System), are used by the public and make our everyday lives easier by guiding us through cities or tracking our parcels.

When we understand social innovation as novel approaches or practices to effectively tackle societal challenges more effectively than before, we can find innovative social practices that emerged during or as a consequence of wars. For example, important international organisations and institutions were established. The Red Cross was founded as a consequence of the Napoleonic wars and Doctors without Borders after the Nigerian Civil War. Both organisations developed novel approaches to providing medical care and humanitarian assistance during conflict. The United Nations was founded during World War II and presented a new process for resolving conflicts without military interventions. Moreover, wars have shifted social institutions, such as gender roles, by opening up jobs and positions to women previously held only by men. However, in many countries, systematic gender orders that placed women primarily in households and men in paid jobs were restored after the war.

These historical examples illustrate that social innovations have played a role in times of war because wars create specific societal challenges that must be urgently solved. In order to find novel approaches to those challenges, we need engaged actors. Ideally, social innovation is not solely characterised as a social action by solving societal challenges; it also uses these innovation processes to bring together different actors. Therefore, civil society plays a very important role in social innovation processes. Without any doubt, civil society has stepped up to provide support and solutions for the current challenges that arose due to the war in Ukraine. In many countries, citizens organised very quickly to provide aid and assistance to the people in Ukraine. They collected donations and financial resources through their own initiatives, sometimes in very creative or even innovative ways. People donated,  bought, and organised transporting needed goods to Ukraine and for arriving refugees. The public also offered housing accommodation and quickly equipped their homes with supplies to support those in need.

Are all of these actions innovative? Probably not. At least not in the sense these actions are completely new. But in many cases, civil society actors and citizens were more effective in providing aid and assistance than established bureaucratic systems. Moreover, direct communication between people in Ukraine, civil society actors, and the public enabled through modern technology made it possible to better provide targeted assistance based on the recipient's needs. In order to mitigate the negative impacts of war, the element of novelty is not the most important – responding quickly, effectivity and providing targeted aid for communities and their circumstances are crucial and a priority. Nevertheless, this civil engagement provides a foundation for new organisations, networks, or processes that can introduce innovative approaches to tackling issues ahead.

Because one thing is for sure: the need for social innovation as a novel approach to tackling societal challenges is always there – it will also likely rise in the upcoming months and years to overcome the societal challenges that (re)emerge due to the war. We will need novel approaches to support the integration and inclusion of displaced people into labour markets, schools, associations, and society at large. We need innovative ways to help people of all ages to heal from their trauma and pain. The Russian attack on Ukraine and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have made it clear that we need innovative ways to increase (social) media literacy and combat fake news, as well as promote new approaches to reinforce democratic values and regain a more inclusive discourse towards displaced people from all over the world. We will also need social innovations that tackle societal challenges that have not yet been overcome, such as inequality, racism, discrimination, poverty, lack of access to education and health care, and the climate catastrophe.

Social innovation has historically played an important role in times of war or crisis. It is also needed to manage and solve societal challenges that arise from these conflicts. But let me be very clear: social innovation does not need war to thrive. In fact, war is the greatest obstruction to humanity. Besides all the negative impacts and destructions caused by war, it destroys innovation. This is not only true for social innovation but for all forms of innovation. Even if some innovations have made a positive impact on society, modernisation and social progress are set back by war. As social innovators have to flee their cities or countries, or have to join the military, they are forced to leave their innovative projects and initiatives behind. In addition, those who stay face immense difficulties and might not be able to continue their important work because the hardships of overcoming war take over everything else. 

May the war in Ukraine and others around the world come to an end and until they do let us show our support for social innovators and their communities working to build a world with peaceful, inclusive, and equal societies. 


Author: Barbara Glinsner, MSc | Researcher, Centre for Social Innovation (ZSI), Vienna


This article was published in our brochure in May, 2022. View our full digital brochure:

Photo credit: Daniele Franchi (Unsplash)