Penta helix: Conceptualizing cross-sector collaboration and social innovation processes

When the triple helix concept was introduced 15 years ago (see eg Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000; Etzkowitz et al 2007), it had tremendous significance for policy making and understanding of innovation systems – and the different roles that actors could adopt. In those days, this could be seen as an almost “disruptive” idea – not least because the helix metaphor argued that the relationships should be seen as winding and interwoven rather than linear. Soon, however, the institutional arrangements that were established in the name of triple helix became more separated and conventional: the inventions were supposed to be generated in what has been called the “knowledge infrastructure” (by which is usually meant universities), developed through the “support structure” (incubators,etc., usually tax-financed) and finally commercialized in the “production structure” (private business). The result would then be economic growth, and everyone will have a good and happy life.

While this model was the foundation for the development of what might be called the conventional innovation system – with a focus on productification and commercialization – over time it has become increasingly clear that the institutional arrangements, as well as these figures of thought, are not ideal for social innovation processes. Certainly, researchers can come up with cheeky ideas also for social innovations, and it does happen that social innovations can be commercialized, but it can hardly be described as a typical or generally valid model. It is also not certain that social innovations must be implemented in the form of new, autonomous businesses or organization – it might as well be about changing routines in public administration.

One of the critical responses to the triple helix concept came in the form of proposals for a quadra or quattro helix model. Ahonen & Hämäläinen (2012), for example, argued that the triple helix needed to be complemented with what could be described as a fourth position, which could be taken by third sector organizations, users, citizens or others, based on an open-innovation logic. Billing (2009), in the report “Øresund – social innovation Zone?” and Danilda, Lindberg & Torstensson (2009), empirically based on the WINNET network, to the contrary, structured quattro helix models specifically based on the argument that third sector organizations also have a legitimate role to play in the innovation system.

Both of these approaches are relevant, but also impose restrictions that could be problematic. It could be argued that innovation has become a central political concept today, not least because of the severe economic crises in recent years, which makes it possible to argue that innovation systems can be described as a form of governance structures. Ahonen and Hämäläinen’s “open position” can thus be seen as reproducing and legitimizing the fundament of a system that have proved to be unsustainable ecologically, socially as well as economically. Billing’s and Danilda, Lindberg & Torstensson’s model can, at least in the Nordic countries, be seen as logical, as it seems based on the structure of the Nordic welfare state model, where legitimacy is strongly linked to organizing and organizational form. This means that it is possible to understand this latter quattro helix model also as a reflection of the Swedish welfare state model and its roots in social movements, such as the labour movement. At the same time, an important part of the discourse on social innovation is a critique of economic, ecological and social structures (such as the organization of welfare services) and a need to rethink (and create) different and innovative models. A central value is also a civic perspective where both rights and responsibility are in focus (Björk, Hansson & Lundborg 2014).

Carayannis & Campbell (2012) argues that there is a need for a “Sustainable development perspective that brings together innovation, entrepreneurship, and democracy.” Based on such a position, it is possible to conceptualize an approach to social innovations that could be described in terms of a penta helix. The concept itself is not new in innovation discourse: A text published by PWC (2005) outlined a model where a quattro helix model was supplemented with a role that was awarded to “citizens or enthusiasts” and was based mainly on what could be seens as part knowledge/innovation logic and part a economic growth logic: “In order to create growth and strategic development.” Interestingly, this model was appropriated from “The Swedish city of Gavel” (sic – should probably be Gävle) and that in the PWC model the “City government” is awarded the spot at the center.


Penta helix – an innovation logic for social innovation?

The case for a corresponding figure of thought linked to social innovation interaction is somewhat different. The idea of a central, cross-boundary, role in an innovation ecosystem for social innovations is based, in a similar way as in the PWC model, on a knowledge/innovation logic but also on a democratic logic. It is simply not reasonable to devise an innovation system for social innovations that do not include both third sector organizations as well as active citizens/social entrepreneurs. In addition to these logics, which could be described also in terms of legitimacy, it is also about action, which could be illustrated with Geoff Mulgan’s (2007) well-known “Bees and Trees” -metaphor where these ‘grenzgänger’, a kind of organizational bricoleurs, “operate across the boundaries between these sectors … innovation thrives best when there are effective alliances between small organisations and entrepreneurs (the ‘bees’ who are mobile, fast, and cross-pollinate) and big organisations (the ‘trees’ with roots, resilience and size) which can grow ideas to scale”


Fig 1. Penta helix model

The conventional innovation support structures, as mentioned above, are usually based on the triple helix model and already within this mindset, there is a plethora of different organizational arrangements in order to facilitate what seems so easy in discourse: a flow of knowledge across organizational and sectorial boundaries. With an aim to support social innovation processes using a penta helix model, the complexity of the system increases significantly.

There is a clearly a demand for the development of knowledge about “how to design contexts that support [social] Innovation” (Phills et al 2008), i.e. innovation systems or ecosystems for social innovation (Bloom & Dees 2008; Pulford 2011; Cameron 2012). Mulgan et al (2007) also highlights that support structures for social innovation are much less developed and funded than those concerned with commercial and technical innovations – and even if some initiatives have been taken, there is still a long way to go.

In Sweden, there are some, mostly local, initiatives that have been structured based on this logic. One interesting example, the Center for Public Entreprenurship (CPE), based in Malmö but active in the whole Skåne Region, emphasize the penta helix as the logic underpinning their activities. The overall objectives for CPE, which is a third sector initiative but largely funded by the Skåne Region, is to support projects and initiatives that encourage civic participation in both local and regional development, and to facilitate cross-sector networks that can increase collaborative governance through supporting public entreprenurship (Bjerke & Hjort 2006). Since 2009, the Center has supported the development of more than 220 initiatives.


We support social entrepreneurial initiatives in the whole Skåne Region by offering mentoring and advice on financing, organization, project management, communication, and access to our multidisciplinary network… it is clear that the most successful projects in southern Sweden has been developed where there has been strong local support. One conclusion from this is that you have to be present and act locally to capture and facilitate engagement, entrepreneurship and real local needs. (

A common feature of CPE’s services is the provision of knowledge and experience for those who are starting up initiatives. This is often done by bringing a broad range of local partners together to build strong coalitions. CPE also works to support networks that aim to strengthen third sector organizations in relation to the public sector. To facilitate this, collaboration with academia and developing international connections are also important activities, as well as facilitating knowledge sharing and development through workshops, conferences and seminars.

Still, the Center for Public Entreprenurship seems to be an exception rather than the rule, and funding is tight. To enable the development of knowledge about how ecosystems for social innovation can be development, more examples are needed. At least in the Swedish context, project funding is readily available for small-scale initiatives, but for the few facilitators and intermediaries working with social innovation processes, there are less opportunities to make their organizations endure.



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HJORT, D. & BJERKE, B. 2006. Public entrepreneurship: moving from social/consumer to public/citizen. IN: STEYAERT, C. & HJORT, D. (Eds.). Entrepreneur­ship as Social Change. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

MULGAN, G., TUCKER, S., ALI, R. and SANDERS, B., 2007. Social innovation: what it is, why it matters and how it can be accelerated. The Young Foundation.

PHILLS J. A, DEIGLMEIER K, MILLER D. T, 2008. Rediscovering Social Innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review, fall 2008.

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