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Social Butterfly Effect

20 years ago, the first ‘centre for social innovation’ was established in Vienna, Austria. Ten years later, they were still the only centre of this name. ten years further on, something has changed.

The European Commission recently launched a guide on how public authorities can support social innovation; the Schwab Foundation and the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council launched a new policy paper on scaling social innovation; and the European Investment Bank released a call for applicants for their second social innovation tournament. Today, there are dozens of labs and hubs instigating and incubating social innovation, dozens of centres doing social innovation, and a series of support mechanisms, funds, and strategies enabling social innovation to flourish all over the world. There are thousands of references to social innovation online.

Innovation is increasingly recognised as a way to tackle social challenges, rather than just the challenges posed in technology, science and medicine. Social innovation is becoming fashionable - everyone is doing it. And what's more, the world is looking to Europe as a leader in this trend.


A new trend

Governments are ‘doing’ it. Across Europe, national governments are experimenting with structures that encourage social innovation. Nine countries in Europe - from Spain to Sweden have official social innovation plans and strategies, the most recent launched in Sweden in autumn 2012. There are also a series of official government 'offices' responsible for social innovation, like the Office of Civil Society in the UK. Several units, positioned both in and outside of governments, have been established, using methods, like design, to develop new strategies for public service delivery (such as the Helsinki Design Lab in Finland and Mindlab in Denmark).

City-level governments are using social innovation, as in ‘La 27e Region’ across France; companies are doing it from McKinsey to HP; large institutions like UNDP are also using social innovation approaches, and of course, communities are doing it. On the ground there is no shortage of brilliant ideas, and ways to find them. European cities are teeming with new ideas, initiated by citizens, professionals and policy-makers. Users are taking a role in designing their own solutions as co-production is more widely understood. New approaches to how we live our lives, like collaborative consumption or crowd-sourcing, are becoming mainstream to the extent that Zipcar, Airbnb and Kickstarter are becoming household names. Whilst competitions and prizes, calling for the most innovative ideas and projects to various societal challenges can be found on the websites of banks to businesses.

Since 2010, Europe has been recognised as playing a leading role in setting an agenda that is embedding social innovation into the centre of policy-making and service delivery. The Europe 2020 Strategy makes a strong commitment to promoting social innovation, and the European Commission's Innovation Union strategy clearly places innovation at the centre of the policy agenda for meeting social challenges affecting Europe and its Member States.


Why now?

Of course, social innovation is not new. For centuries, people have been innovating to find a better way of addressing societal challenges - from the first schools, to the first cars, to the first national health services. Europe has also been leading the way for centuries - many of these firsts have European roots. What is new, however, are the structures that are being developed to support social innovation.

Whilst globalisation, international migration and innovations in information and communication technologies have transformed the society we live in, and brought about substantial improvements to the lives of Europeans, these developments have failed to stem the rising tide of social, economic and environmental challenges. That's why social innovation is needed.

This need has of course been heightened by the current financial and economic crisis. Europe has its highest levels of unemployment for decades. Climate change, social exclusion, inter-generational worklessness, material poverty, health and wealth inequalities and ageing populations continue to pose real and significant challenges across Europe. These challenges are already beyond the capacity of public budgets, and in the case of ageing and chronic disease, private budgets too. It is hampering Europe's competitiveness and economic growth in the long term.

That new and innovative approaches are required to meet the economic, social and environmental challenges now and into the future, is widely accepted. How to make that happen is a harder question.


A deeper understanding

Europe is leading the way in developing a better understanding of social innovation and putting in place policies, across the Commission directorates from DG Market's Social Business initiative, to DG Connect's digital agenda, that are beginning to create an environment in which social innovation can flourish across member states.

The EC is providing resources for extensive research on mapping and frameworks. For example, in Portugal a methodology for mapping specific social innovations is being developed by the Social Entrepreneurship Institute and INSEAD. Work on tools to measure results on the macro scale is being undertaken by University of Heidelberg in Germany. This is building on existing indicators to measure innovation, thus helping governments and funders to understand where their interventions are most effective.

The EC is supporting research projects, which aim to better understand social innovation in various contexts. In the public sector, LIPSE (Learning Innovation in Public Sector Environments) will identify drivers and barriers

to successful social innovation in eleven EU countries and seven policy sectors. Whereas TEPSIE, a research collaboration between six European institutions, aims to understand the theoretical, empirical and policy foundations for developing the field of social innovation.

Other projects are covering everything in between, from looking at how to transfer best projects and practices between regions, to governance and community building at a local level.

Beyond the research, there is also an increasing recognition of the role of strong learning communities and networks. This is why the Social Innovation Europe initiative, which SIX (Social Innovation eXchange) ran on behalf of DG Enterprise, focused on creating a community of social innovation practitioners who can support, learn and share from each other.

So what's missing?

Whilst the growing momentum and investment is positive, it also brings challenges.

The problem is not that there isn't enough social innovation in Europe. The problem is, rather, that innovations taking place are not effectively disseminated, because they are not sufficiently understood; many innovations are not picked up, because their relevance is not recognised. Innovations can also fail after they are introduced into a new social context, because they are not suitable to the different conditions in another city, or another country.

More attention needs to be paid to how social innovation and social innovators can be better supported, and how existing projects and ideas can develop, scale and replicate. There are three levels at which social innovation can be accelerated and where capacity to do social innovation should be developed - awareness of what is happening, understanding how it is happening, and having the skills and ability to actually do it.

  • As described above, significant progress is being made on awareness of concept, but still more resources needs to be put into finding out who is doing what/where, and what is working and what's not. There are resources such as SIX and Social Innovation Europe, but we need more support in global and European infrastructures to do this work. We need to support platforms for people to share ideas, tools and methods, as well as an honest account of what works and what doesn't. Not reinventing the wheel is important.

  •  Not only understanding what works, but also why and how. Some of the skills needed are those that can help in 'learning how to adopt and adapt. It is not so simple as finding what works and scaling it up somewhere else. In cities, towns and communities across Europe there are projects which are innovative in the context of that place. Transferring the project to another context will require an understanding of all the components, and then effective ‘bricolage’ skills which will enable the development of a hybrid combination of new and old elements in order to make it work in another place, country or region. We therefore need more skilled and effective translators, as much as we need initiators. For social innovations to spread, we need people who have mastered bricolage.

  • Even if we have an understanding, we may not have the ability to actually do it. A critical lesson from the fields of science and business is that successful innovation depends on skills-observation, learning, multiplying ideas, finance, design and scaling. Creating new solutions to complex social challenges therefore, requires a new level of expertise in techniques and approaches that have been shown to work and creativity from the people who work across society, in government, business and the third sector. There is a distinct lack of training and capacity building in the field of social innovation. There are an increasing number of organisations around the world, many of which are in Europe, providing resources and training which demystify innovation and make it into a practical process, empowering individuals and organisations by giving them the tools to turn learning and theoretical ideas into practice - from the Global Innovation Academy model, to Nesta's work on skills in the UK, to Kennisland's Social Innovation Safari in the Netherlands. Academic institutions like INSEAD are also providing practical training in this area. However, there is still a lack of provision of this kind.


Progressing with caution

A deeper understanding is needed to ensure that enough people across the public, private and third sector are present to create the right environment in which social innovation can flourish. This is essential if we want innovation to help us tackle the complex societal challenges we face today.

The nature of innovation means the end result may look very different to what was imagined at the beginning. Whilst governments and funders and others that support social innovation need to know where to direct their money and need data on what is working, the demand for rigorous measurement too soon, might just kill ideas with potential. Being aware of this balance and working closely with the stakeholders within the social innovation ecosystem, will affect the impact and potential of this concept across Europe.


Louise Pulford is the Director of the newly-independent Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), a global community of 5,000 individuals and organisations involved in social innovation. For the past four years, Louise was responsible for SIX during its incubation phase within the Young Foundation, managing its websites, events and networking activities. She also manages the European consortium which runs the flagship European Commission network - Social Innovation Europe. Previously at the Young Foundation, Louise supported a number of projects including the development of the UpRising programme - a leadership programme encouraging young people to be more involved in public life and decision making. She is also Chair of the Alec Dickson Trust.
Published on 24-05-2013 15:06 by David Tee. 1506 page views

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