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Interview : Armelle Ledan, Social innovation Project coordinator.

Oct 17, 2022 | Opinions

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Social innovation and social entrepreneurship have become key approaches for tackling pressing societal challenges at the European Commission, with social innovation being seen as a crucial source of growth and job creation. Milestone policies and funding initiatives such as the Innovation Union Initiative, the Social Business Initiative, the Start-Up and Scale Up Initiative, Horizon 2020/Horizon Europe; and the current Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI) strand of European Social Fund Plus (ESF+), have been driving the way for the creation, uptake and scaling of socially innovative solutions. AEIDL Senior Expert, Armelle Ledan, has been a key expert contributing to the assessment of social innovation projects, leading the task of developing a methodological guide on social innovation under the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI) 2014-2020. In this interview with AEIDL, she explains the buzz around social innovation and its role in fair and sustainable development.

What is social innovation for you?

For me, social innovation is the best way to find new responses to societal challenges and needs that are not satisfied, or very unsatisfactorily met, by existing policies and measure. When there is no solution or no good enough ones, try something new. If you ask people to mention one technological innovation, answers will flow quite easily: electricity, tv, plastic, mobile phone, solar energy, vaccination etc, whereas social innovation is often perceived as a “hard-to-grasp” concept, a bit “blurry”.

Social innovation has a clear, intended, primary aim: to create positive social change. This core objective fundamentally distinguishes social innovation from other forms of innovation (technological, organisational, commercial etc) with different primary aims (productivity, economic growth, profit) even if they incidentally also deliver positive social outcomes. Innovation is not an objective per se. Social innovation is expected to achieve better positive social impact than existing solutions.

Unsatisfied social challenges and needs, whether new or not yet overcome, are the starting point of any social innovation, and they emerge in any economic sector, any field of human activity: how to provide quality and affordable care services for elderly people in remote areas? How to accelerate migrants’ job integration ? How to avoid the growing number of schools drop-outs? How to answer the housing needs of people threatened by social exclusion, or the skills and learning needs of low qualified workers facing the labour market digitalisation? These are some examples of social needs at the core of social innovation projects and initiatives in Europe. 

Social innovation is a highly contextual phenomenon, with needs and solutions framed by the national, regional or local contexts (history, culture, legislation, funding, infrastructures, policies, profile and number of the beneficiaries). For instance, the challenge of integrating migrants in the labour market is not the same in Denmark than in Greece or Italy, countries of reception. Innovation is thus relative. A solution can be new to a country, a region or a city, even if well established in other territories. It can also be new to a target group, or to a sector. This means there is no copy-paste, and social innovations always need to be adapted to the new context where they are meant to be transferred or scaled-up.

Innovative solutions can take different forms, such as a new product (online pension platform for mobile workers in Europe, adapted training material for migrants), a new service (mobile care service), a new process (quality agreement signed with beneficiaries), a new model (microcredit pioneered by Muhammad Yunus), a new organisation or function (case handlers, financial capabilities officers), very often combined. Alike any innovation, the intensity can vary from incremental (improving existing solutions, prevalent in social experimentation) to radical (developing totally new solutions, requiring complex experimentation). It follows the classical “innovation cycle”, from ideation, to prototyping, testing, evaluating, upscaling and embedding, and can benefit from digitalisation and technological development (smart villages).

Last but not least, social innovation is by essence collaborative, involving the participation of a wide range of actors (public and private sectors, civil society), but primarily, the end-users or beneficiaries. You cannot create social innovation alone behind your desk. These new collaborations transcend traditional silos and are in themselves a driver for innovation. 

Why is everyone, at European level, currently talking about social innovation?

For the past 20 years, social innovation has been supported at European level through different policy levers, from structural funds, research and public procurement to regulation. However, there is a clear renewed EU support for social innovation as a way to strengthen the social resilience of Member States, recognising its capacity to identify emerging and unmet needs, to experiment with next-generation policies, services and solutions, to facilitate policy learning, upscaling and transfer, as well as to strengthen society’s capacity to act. Social innovation is often mobilised in times of crisis when emergency implies to think out of the box. It is promoted as an efficient way to look for alternative solutions to tackle our contemporary fast evolving and complex societal challenges, exacerbated by the Covid pandemic and the current conflict in Ukraine, such as globalisation, the transition to a low carbon economy, demographic evolution, the shift towards a digital society, migration trends. Social innovation and social experimentation are also transformative, with the capacity to unlock existing potentialities and to produce sustainable and systemic positive changes, based on their essential aim of creating social value for all.

The EU ecosystem is becoming more favourable for social innovation for the 2021-2027 period. Among a wide range of programmes and funding available, such as Horizon Europe, Interreg, Urban Innovative Actions, or the EU social innovation competition, ESF+ is probably the EU instrument that provides the stronger explicit support to social innovation and social experimentation. Social innovation became a clear priority for Member States operational programmes, with a higher cofounding rate. ESF+ also launched the creation of Social Innovation National Competence Centres in Member States, and created new mechanisms to enhance transnational cooperation and the transfer and upscaling of successful social innovations across regions and countries, to expand the benefits of these new solutions to more people and territories. There is now a whole space and highly crucial needs to invent, create, experiment, test, innovate all over Europe, and at a wide scale to create a truly impact and change.

Why should people care about it / take it into consideration?

Social innovations are grounded in a truly collaborative process, that brings together different actors, where civil society has a very important role to play, in particular the beneficiaries or end-users. User-centred approaches, co-creation and empowerment activities are utilised to benefit from the beneficiaries active participation in the social innovation design and implementation.

Citizens, civil society organisations and CSOs representing them, are essential and the best placed to identify and assess the specific social needs that they face. As innovative and creative as it is, a new solution will only be relevant if it responds to the real problems encountered by the population. Social innovation is therefore a process that allows people in a given territory, or sector, to clearly identify and express their own challenges, threats as well as expectations. Many social experimentations start with in-depth surveys and participatory activities to ensure that the barriers and issues to be solved are those really encountered by people on the ground.

People whose problems will be alleviated by the innovative solution also actively contribute to the creation of the project or initiative. In social experimentations, solutions are rigorously tested through small pilots, and the results are solidly evaluated to guarantee that positive change is created for all users. Not only the solution is adapted to the users’ needs, but their involvement leads to better acceptance of the new initiatives and policies, an efficient way to overcome the lack of trust and some reluctance towards innovation in general, often underestimated. Social innovation approaches can be applied to any target group, territory, field or sector. 

How can social innovation be applied in local development? (case studies, examples)

It is acknowledged in the academic world that social innovation originates locally and often emerge to tackle concrete local issues. Aiming at addressing social local challenges, social innovation has close links with local development that builds upon local resources and knowledge while connecting them to wider contexts. Both are based on the bottom-up approach and on strong cross-sectoral and multi-actors partnerships. 

One of the principles of the most well-known EU programme for local development, LEADER, followed by CLLD, is innovation at large, covering all its forms, including social innovation. There is a vast field of inspiring local social innovations to harvest and better understand, such as RISE HUB  in Italy, that works on the promotion of community resilience through the development of personal skills, social inclusion, intercultural learning, sustainable territorial development and the creation of social ties, in response to the new inflows of refugees and asylum seekers (see other projects in “Promoting social innovation in rural areas”.

Social innovation can be a driver of local development because it is not only about the end result, but it strongly focuses on the process that brings change. By actively involving all stakeholders, it creates a better understanding and a shared knowledge of a particular challenge in the local area, which is a crucial endogenous resource for local development. Its methodology can also contribute to a better assessment of the social needs and resources of a community, neighbourhood, city or local area. By giving a bigger place to the social value created, in addition to the more classical socio-economic results, social innovation can support a more holistic, sustainable and inclusive local development. 

Many examples of social experimentations in local areas, funded by the EaSI programme, involve and empower the most vulnerable groups such as RuralCare, a new way of organising and delivering long-term care in rural areas, preventive and flexible enough to respond to individual care needs of older people and people with disabilities and chronic diseases.

Social innovation, and social experimentation in particular, also developed a wealth of tools and methodologies to assess and evidence the positive social results produced, which are very useful when it comes to convincing policy makers to change policies and provide funding to further develop the small-scale initiative (see Social experimentation : a practical guide for project promoters ).

One fundamental dimension of social innovation is its objective, from the start, when results are positive, to be expanded up to the level of social needs, often wider than the local level where it was developed, and this can be usefully applied to local development. The innovative solutions are very specific to their local ecosystems, but when successful, many have the potential to be upscaled or transferred to other territories, with some adaptations. More territories, organisations and citizens could thus benefit from these new services, products or practices and gain time by using existing practices already successfully tested in other contexts, saving essential and rare resources (time, budget etc). Strong connections among social actors and consistent knowledge transfer help build resilience.

Local issues are engrained and impacted by global trends and challenges, and therefore cannot always be solved through local development strategies relying on local social capital and resources. Local development needs to be embedded in wider collaborative relations and the current EU level reinforce ecosystem for social innovation can enhance local communities access to complementary external support, ideas and funding. Social innovation is now perceived as means to develop solutions and prototypes that help communities become more self-sufficient and resilient, and an important component of the framework needed for sustainable and fair development, recovery programmes might offer a unique opportunity to tackle historical weaknesses and introduce radical changes to speed up transitions towards a more resilient, fairer, greener, and connected Europe.

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