Europe: The World’s Largest Social Innovation Lab

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There is nothing like a crisis to generate action. Even the most optimistic observers accept that Europe faces monumental economic and social challenges. Small or incremental solutions simply don’t cut it. These are the perfect conditions for social innovation: Solutions are needed that transform systems, not just tinker with them. Europe has become a “living lab” for this emerging field by default – it has to urgently experiment with new ideas and processes now. So, when two Commissioners, Johannes Hahn and Laszlo Andor, from the European Commission issue a Guide to Social Innovation*, it’s worth studying.

Here are a few takeaways:

1.    From Definitions to Practice: Developing a Social Innovation Approach

Unlike many writings on social innovation that focus on the definitional ambiguity that surrounds social innovation, Hahn and Andor unapologetically outline their definition and then emphasize some practical distinctives of adopting a social innovation approach:

  •  open rather than closed when it comes to knowledge-sharing and the ownership of knowledge;

  • multi-disciplinary and more integrated to problem solving than the single department or single profession solutions of the past;

  • participative and empowering of citizens and users rather than ‘top down’ and expert-led;

  • demand-led rather than supply-driven;  tailored rather than mass-produced, as most solutions have to be adapted to local circumstances and personalised to individuals.

They also identify three broad types of social innovation activity in Europe:

a)    social demand innovations – ones not addressed by the market or existing organizations normally focused on vulnerable groups – youth, migrants, elderly;

b)   societal challenges – innovations focused on society as a whole – e.g., solutions for cities/urban innovation that integrate social, economic and environmental issues;

c)    systemic change – the “most ambitious of the three and to an extent encompassing the other two” that seeks to redraw relations between institutions and stakeholders.

2.  From Problem-Focused to Opportunity-Focused

Hahn and Andor argue that a shift is taking place in the approach to social problems:

 In the past, societal challenges such as the ageing of Europe, migration waves, social exclusion or sustainability were primarily perceived as problems that constrained the behaviour of economic actors. Individuals wishing to tackle them turned to traditional non-profit models as the vehicle through which to channel their energies. These activities have often been highly dependent on government subsidies or private donations and faced the difficulty of realising a long-lasting, sustainable difference.

Today, societal trends are increasingly perceived as opportunities for innovation. What’s more, trends in demography, community and social media, poverty, the environment, health and well- being, or ethical goods and services are more and more understood as growth markets.

They point to a wave of business model experimentation – new organizational types and strategies to blend economic and social values – as evidence of change.

3.    From Out-there to In-here: A Public Sector in need of Social Innovation

For social innovation to flourish in Europe, the report argues, the public sector itself needs its own dose of social innovation. Public sector structures and practices were designed for a different time and need reform if they are to respond to current and future challenges.

 There have been service improvements in health, social care, welfare, housing and other fields, but the central basis of service design has often not been challenged. The problems of integrating welfare systems with active labour market policy, or linking health and long term care, illustrate just how difficult it is to reform these systems, especially when they involve multiple agencies and different levels of government.

 …Many complex problems are addressed by policies and projects that are financed by different levels of government. Making public finance systems reward the most effective solutions is not easy in these fragmented and multi-level environments.

4.    From one-off programs to embedding social innovation into public policy

Perhaps the most significant take away is Hahn and Andor’s call for the need to “upscale social innovation into public policies”.  They argue that Europe not only needs more examples of social innovation, it also needs to integrate social innovation into its policy frameworks.

Historically, many of the most important social innovations have happened as a result of random, accidental or organic processes resulting in new ideas that are then taken up by politicians or institutions. However, social innovation can be also an organised process. Programme and policy design can yield successful innovations that are both scalable and make a difference at the societal level.

The importance of the relationship between the public sector and social innovation isn’t a new insight (for example, see writings by Goldsmith et al., Leadbeater and Mulgan/NESTA) but this Guide reflects the growing interest in giving the public sector a pivotal role in social innovation. Alongside those traditionally associated with social innovation, i.e. social entrepreneurs, the role of creative policy makers needs to be elevated and encouraged.

 Social innovators can come from all walks of life. Social innovation can take place in public, private and third sector organisations. Often the most fruitful sources of new ideas take place in collaborations across sectors. It follows that social innovation is not the preserve of any particular group such as social entrepreneurs or think tanks but that these people and organisations make valuable contributions as do consultancies, policy makers, politicians etc. They can operate at the level of new ideas and pilots, of implementation and scaling, but also at the level of policy making.

It’s not just about creating specific policies to foster social innovation per se but to embed ideas/principles of social innovation within existing public policies. That means using a social innovation lens/approach across core public policy domains – such as health, social security, immigration, and innovation. The Guide provides country specific examples of how a social innovation approach can revitalize and influence existing policies (and more critically leverage/redeploy the often considerable resources associated with existing programs) to tackle a wide range of issues from social inclusion to urban regeneration.

But it is early days. Hahn and Andor put forward 10 first steps for Europe – the first step being to raise awareness and educate and engage policymakers about the possibilities. It may require some considerable changes in behaviour.

Promoting social innovation within European societies and, more specifically, inside social policies, entails:

  • adopting a prospective view of needs/expectations/possibilities (instead of sticking to what is obvious and consensual), consistently with a logics of investment;

  • mobilising a wide range of actors whose (non-)action has an impact on protection/inclusion/cohesion/well-being (instead of focusing only on the social professions);

  • combining skills/backgrounds and cultures/business and public services to offer innovative responses (instead of focusing only on business products or, at the contrary, ignoring them).

Perhaps such shifts are only possible in a crisis. There are no guarantees that it will work but maintaining the status quo is no longer sustainable. The “policy window” for social innovation may be starting to open in new ways.

* European Commission (2013). Guide to Social Innovation

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