10 years ago the main European institutions, like national governments, were sceptical of social innovation. It was seen as something marginal about NGOs, and small community projects. Innovation was good and vast amounts of money were being channelled into more traditional innovation, science and technology. But the big lobbies – big business, big science and universities– dominated debate in Brussels, and social projects and enterprises struggled to be heard.
Since then, a few individuals both inside and outside the system have helped to change that, opening up a new debate and space (this piece summarises some of the changes). A crucial role was played in the late 2000s by BEPA, under the authority of the President of the Commission. The result is that 10 years on, the seeds they sowed are beginning to bear fruit. There are now dozens of social innovation centres and labs, incubators and accelerators across Europe. There’s been a big expansion of social investment funds, and although only a small minority focus on innovation, these provide a new route to help innovations grow to scale. Governments are backing more systematic social experimentation – with Finland in the lead. Several countries have developed serious social innovation strategies – with Slovenia the latest. Universities have built up research centres, from Dortmund to Glasgow and Barcelona. The EU’s Social Innovation Prize has attracted thousands of imaginative projects in successive rounds. Digital social innovation has taken off, and around 2000 organisations are now linked by DSI Europe, tapping into the energies of maker movements, open data and others. The Commission has added social innovation into its big funding programmes like Horizon 2020, in tandem with some national agencies, like SITRA and Vinnova.
These are all reasons for optimism. But there are also reasons for anxiety. The most important anxiety concerns the broader climate. If countries turn inwards, and retreat into fear and chauvinism, there’s going to be much less space for social creativity.
Another reason for anxiety is the inertia of institutions. Despite the progress, the vast majority of funds for innovation or enterprise are still captured by more traditional organisations and methods. One major part of this is the failure of public sectors across Europe to open up to purchasing and commissioning from social innovators, which has greatly slowed down the pace of change in developing new models of care, learning or welfare.
For the social innovation movement, three big challenges follow. The first is the need to demonstrate big inroads on the big issues of our times such as ageing; unemployment; stagnant democracy. This will require moving on from the units of analysis and action of previous eras. Much earlier activity focused on the individual (social entrepreneurs and innovators); the individual venture, and the individual innovation. This was a necessary stage but also incomplete. Action on these levels needs to be complemented by more strategic, systematic thought and action at the level of systems, or industries in particular places. For example: how to sharply improve the performance of the housing sector, or childcare, or training in a city or region. Hegel once wrote that if you want to see an oak you’ll be disappointed to be shown an acorn.
Next we still need to grow funding at serious scale, expanding it in tandem with the capacity of social innovators to use money well, but moving towards a larger proportion of R&D spend, both public and private, and public purchasing more generally, to be directed to innovations that are social in both their ends and their means.
A third challenge is to further deepen the links between the social innovation world and the worlds of evidence – knowing what works – and the world of data that is going through multiple revolutions at the moment. Both open up big opportunities – but require new skills and mindsets.
In practical terms, I’d like to see more use of challenges and challenge prizes, which start from the outcome desired rather than funding inputs; I’d like to see more creativity in use of funding tools (of the kind we’ve mapped at Nesta); more focus on adoption and spread of new tools rather than just creativity; more engagement with the next generation in schools; and more embrace of experimentalism.
But all this will count for little without a greater will to change. The fundamental fact is that although Europe’s economy has turned around after the stagnation that followed the crisis of 2007/8, Europe’s societies have not. Too many people feel disconnected and left behind; the deeper challenges of shifting health to cope with older populations, preparing young people for the future labour market or taking carbon out of the economy have made much less progress. This reflects what is still a huge imbalance in terms of where world puts its innovation effort, its time, money and brains. Vast amounts go to the military, and to hardware, far less to social solutions. That needs to change. Luckily, though, despite a climate that sometimes looks distracted at best and hostile at worst, innovators themselves tend to be optimists and believe, like Martin Luther, that, ‘even if I know that the world will fall to pieces tomorrow, I’ll still plant my apple tree today.’