Social innovation comes of age in Europe

Social innovation is about new ideas that work to address pressing unmet society needs”

The shifts taking place in Europe

The competitiveness and challenges that Europe faces in the next ten years are significant. Innovation has been placed at the heart of Europe’s 2020 strategy. It is this clear recognition that innovation is the best means of tackling issues that will affect our future living standards is not new in itself, but it is this real political recognition of its place and importance, now that is.

Innovation is also our best means of successfully tackling major societal challenges, such as climate change, energy and resource scarcity, health and aging and becoming more urgent each day to address in more systematic ways.

European funding of innovation in recent years has perhaps placed far too much emphasis on research and development to deliver the growth and jobs it requires.

In many cases it has been outperformed by other competitors and has not been as well linked as it should have been to country or EU policies. The EU is presently going through a public consultation to strengthen its new “Common Strategic Framework” to get into the system more efficiency, not an easy task across 27 plus countries and better uptake across a wider audience.

Societal challenges are where the next big challenges lie.

The recent global economic crisis has raised society issues far more. Social innovation will begin to move from the margins to the mainstream to tackle a range of these society challenges. It will inevitably need more structural support; it needs more coordination and alignment by all the stakeholders involved, it needs organizing and being recognized in its own right.

“Social innovation’ as a term is still relatively new one but social innovation is of course not. There are many examples but establishing a “field” of social innovation is certainly necessary and needed to get a broader momentum behind multiple initiatives.

Any new ‘field’ needs debate. It needs common terminology, clearer definitions of what it covers, a growing understanding of the different tools, techniques, methods and establishing a knowledge base to draw down from. Social innovation has no given geographical boundaries; it happens across society that involves all sectors of a community: public, private and non-profit. Actually one of the real challenges is managing across the boundaries between sectors.

An emerging social economy is replacing much of what we have known.

I recently wrote in this blog (4th January 2011) about how social will dominate our thinking in 2011 and beyond. Here is the link (  It is very different from economics based on the production and consumption of commodities. It has five very distinctive differences from existing innovation approaches

  1. It has an intensive use and reliance on distributed networks to sustain and manage the relationships that constantly need to be brought together to resolve a ‘given level’ of societal challenges. They are fluid, constantly changing and never fixed.
  2. It has blurred boundaries between production and consumption, across sectors and traditional ‘mixes’ of innovation. Often there are no clear ‘black or white’ solutions, many will need de-constructing and re-constructing on distinct challenges and context.
  3. The emphasis on collaboration and repeated interactions need greater care and maintenance than much of our present ‘one-off’ consumption. Society is quick to mobilize today, playing off the defensive is not the answer, it is leading the offensive and shaping these interactions becomes critical. You cannot be passive, you need to be ready to experiment, learn and move on through this learning and confront, irrespective.
  4.  There is a significant emphasis on value and missions to build momentum and overcome many challenging barriers so as to achieve those solutions that provide improvements on existing approaches. Passion runs high, solutions become very emotive. It needs a consistent and strong commitment to execute from this value and mission, you need a bedrock of belief and commitment.
  5. The consumer or final receiver of the social solution dramatically changes, from being a passive to a very active, and highly engaged participant. Many of todays solutions based on the presentl linear process cannot work or applied. Solutions based on consistent interactions must be built on ecosystem platforms. I’ve touched on ecosystems previously here ( ).

Early recognition of these differences or where innovation is merging today around social and end consumer unmet needs will need ‘fleshing out’ in any future debates.

What is distinctive about social innovation?

Besides the five points listed above, there are many distinctive differences about social innovation. The emphasis is firmly placed and measured on outcomes; it raises relationships, cooperation and collaboration to far higher heights than innovation coming from business has seemingly been able to achieve or so it seems from the countless comments made. Perhaps it might accelerate this end of the innovation debate and ‘fuse’ innovation at the end result not at the present ‘fuzzy front end’ or in the process but solving the execution challenge through new novel ways.

As a result, the processes, metrics, models and methods used in the commercial or technological field of innovation may not be directly transferable to the social economy, or it might be a real mistake to attempt this. This is one of my major concerns from the EU commission merging this into their innovation activity under one overarching innovation initiative as the real danger becomes one of the ‘easy’ use of existing policy, mechanisms and frameworks for present innovation structure are applied to this. This would be the wrong model for social challenges. This needs clear difference from day one. This needs to be part of these intial debates.

Innovation as many understand it is always chasing for a clear measurable result. The more unambiguous the result the more the market values it. Scale, market share and profit rule the thinking. There is far more contestability when it comes to understanding value for society and will make for ‘generic’ answers as not as straightforward or potentially transferrable. Social innovation will be hard to often transfer as the context will be distinctly different. Recognizing the successful aspects and separating the ones applicable to a certain challenge will become a significant skill to ‘scale and scope’ social innovation when we want to benchmark others and try to duplicate those efforts as ‘our’ answer.

Let the debate begin.

For many who have been working within the social area what I have commented upon so far is nothing new, far from it. There has been a significant ‘work-in-progress’ for some years. The change lies in my opening comments, if social innovation goes mainstream, then debate also goes mainstream and becomes a deluge of conflicting advice and thinking.

How any social innovation Europe initiative is managed will depend on the strength of the work documented, proven and ready to be applied from the past as a good starting point.  A consortium of European partners has been working upon this and you can find some good background material from the web site of the EU on social innovation ( ). Two other sites worth referring too are and one of the leading researchers and influences on policy to date in this social innovation area has been . I’ve drawn a lot of my insights from the work they have pioneered.

The official launch event is in March 2011

The adoption of social innovation will have a launch event for the Social Innovation Europe initiative in Brussels on 16th & 17th March, 2011. ( ). This event will attempt to put a face on the policy, discuss implications and showcase a number of social innovation pioneers. It officially begins the EU leading social innovation. Should we be afraid of this or grasp the opportunity of what it can bring for the pressing society problems that are pressing in on us? I choose the later- embrace.

I’m presently reading an interesting book that does relate to this social set of challenges. Although it spends much of its discussion on business solutions it does certainly go well beyond the business world in lots of the examples to draw from and apply to social innovation. It is written by Gaurav Bhalla and called “Collaboration & Co-creation- new platforms for marketing and innovation”.

In this book he offers a simply but powerful framework that would apply here. Listen > Engage > Respond.

My hope for the EU Social Innovation debate

That the EU and all the ‘collective’ wisdom that will convene in Brussels will listen, not just to each other but to the crying needs of society as the issues have incredibly wide boundaries that are indeed unmet today. The challenges are big.

The EU does engage in a completely different way to tackle social issues. The platform that needs building has to be open, very fluid, often experimental and using all possible means of social tools to make it fully engaging.

Thirdly the ability to respond to such a different, diverse set of society challenges is going to call upon the ingenuity of the Commission. It will need to respond not just to the established parts of society, the institutions, public and private but to the third sector. This sector is passionate, driven and highly committed to the causes they personally sees as vital.

This all requires this social innovation ecosystem, the network of networks, that draws in civil society, government, business, institutions, not for profit charities and non-governmental organizations for example.

The Listen, Engage and Response principle is going to be a tough area for a body like the EU to manage but they will have to fully embrace today’s social tools (and tomorrow’s improvements) to stand a chance. A social challenge in itself!

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