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Five things Europe's social innovation community needs from policymakers

Of the challenges we face - from pressure on housing to migrant integration and climate change - some of the most creative and resourceful solutions are being initiated by compassionate and committed citizens, communities and civil society organisations, public institutions and technologists. Public policy - at local, national and international levels - can help these initiatives to succeed. It can also get in their way.

Over the last year, the Social Innovation Community project has led an on- and offline campaign to find out how European policymakers can help social innovators make an even bigger impact. To connect with the many diverse actors who make up Europe's social innovation community, we designed and delivered various activities - an interactive policy workshop, social media campaigns, online consultations and a series of online policy roundtables. The goal was simple: to produce a Social Innovation Policy Declaration to share with the European Commission, member countries and politicians.

The timing of this matters. Planning and negotiations are already underway for Europe’s post-2020 strategy and the Multiannual Financial Framework (Europe’s long-term budget). A general climate of political uncertainty and fear has seen many of Europe’s political leaders call for strengthened border security and defences, all of which are likely to appear high on the list of post-2020 political priorities.

But a different vision for Europe’s future also needs to be heard.

At the EC-hosted New Era for Social Innovation conference in November 2017, we asked representatives of the community to share their future vision for Europe with us. They emphasised principles and values such as openness, inclusion, participation and democratization: a vision where European citizens and communities are empowered and supported to create meaningful societal impact.

Making these visions a reality

We asked social innovators from all over Europe how policymakers could help make this a future vision a reality. Almost 350 people - representing a diversity of sectoral, organisational and regional perspectives from over 19 EU member countries - got involved in our on- and offline engagement activities. Of this number, over 200 people responded to our consultation to share their stories and views of how EU policy could better support them to achieve greater social impact.

Based on our analysis of their feedback, we identified five key needs shared by the community.

1. Making funding suitable for small-scale experimentation, spreading and scaling impact.

Our consultation highlighted several ways that EU funding instruments and regulations could be enhanced to create greater social impact. For instance, several instruments still need to be radically simplified and adapted for social innovation actors, in particular for smaller social organisations, who can find the administrative burden too great. Funding conditions should be made more flexible to encourage the successful development of solutions, in particular in areas based on agile, flexible, iterative and user-centred processes, such as digital social innovation. Issues like risk-aversion and a pressure to spend quickly also discourage national and regional authorities from investing in social innovation. Funding is needed at all key stages of the social innovation lifecycle, including prototyping, experimentation, scaling and replicating proven innovations in or between regions.

“There’s a lack of sustainable and longer-term funding streams so that groups, communities and smaller organisations can experiment with various social innovation tools and approaches that have a wide impact and scalability.”

#SIDeclaration consultee, 2018

2. Supporting citizens and civil society to play a greater role in community-led innovation.

Our consultation highlighted the need to make the benefits of European policies and funding more accessible to local communities, for example by co-funding neighbourhood civic innovation spaces, hubs and initiatives (along with national and regional authorities). Consultees pointed to a need for more capacity-building and training so that citizens, communities and civil society can participate in local community-led innovation, something it was argued could be achieved by enhanced cooperation between national governments, regions, local authorities, businesses and employers, workers and civil society, as well as by strengthening a wider network of local providers, facilitators and connectors capable of mobilising such community-led initiatives.

“We need investment: in skills, infrastructure and evidence, including investing into SI activists' livelihood...”

#SIDeclaration consultee, 2018

3. Strengthening public officials' capacity, skills and incentives to support social innovation.

Although social innovation might have high-level support from public authorities, several consultees spoke of a gap between policy intention and implementation. A general absence of social innovation skills, mindset, culture and know-how were viewed as major barriers to changing different levels of government from the inside. There were calls for more innovative public service models that bolster public sector innovative capabilities, for example through (i) training; (ii) re-organising functions, roles and competences; (iii) strengthening regional and local administrations; (iv) modernising and improving the quality of policy development processes, programmes and public services; (v) strengthening inter-service cooperation and coordination; (vi) supporting dialogue with social partners, NGOs and e-government (particularly related to digital democracy and open policy platforms).

“There are too many challenges: cultural, skills, technological, legal, policy and, above all, lack of trust in ordinary people.”

#SIDeclaration consultee, 2018

4. Making public procurement a better instrument of social innovation policy.

€1.9 trillion is spent on public procurement every year in Europe. Yet despite the good progress that the Commission has made in encouraging public authorities to consider innovative, green and social criteria in awarding public contracts; for many social innovation actors, the public market remains inaccessible due to regulatory difficulties or the lack of demand or know-how from public buyers. Our consultation found that innovative partnerships within public procurement procedures are still under-used and leave little room for social experimentation; often lacking the flexibility and space for iterative development that social innovation initiatives need.

“Public procurement procedures are often more risky than beneficial to us.”

#SIDeclaration consultee, 2018

5. Spreading social innovation to regions where it is needed most.

Many respondents pointed to the challenges of living in regions where the need for social innovation was high, but support and awareness was low – particularly amongst national and regional authorities. A strong message overall is that there needs to be greater investment in awareness raising and capacity and network-building for regional support organisations and stakeholders, and in funding demonstration projects aimed at establishing stronger support systems that connect the local, regional, transregional and transnational levels and which can accelerate the spreading of high-potential social innovations across borders.

“Support to intermediary bodies in our region and transfer of knowledge should be priority for financial support.”

#SIDeclaration consultee, 2018

Join us on 12 and 13 November 2018 in Seville for a chance to discuss the Declaration and how to implement it at the Social Innovation Community project’s final event.

Nesta is a partner in the Social Innovation Community project, funded by the European Union. An earlier version of this post appeared on the Social Innovation Community website.


Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Sophie Reynolds

Former Senior Researcher - Public and Social Innovation

Sophie was a Senior Researcher in Nesta’s Policy and Research unit. She is now Director of Sophie Reynolds Research & Consultancy.

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