Social innovation policy in Europe: where next?

‘Social innovation policy’ isn’t yet an established term, but there are examples from around the world of what policy can do to support social innovation. We map the field, with a particular focus on EU policy.

Key findings

  • The current social innovation policy ‘menu’ includes: funding and investment; skills and capacity building; regulation and legal frameworks; use of public procurement; awareness raising, championing and connecting; and using public assets to create opportunities for social innovation.
  • Meanwhile, there are many examples of social innovation approaches within policymaking. We argue that these can be summarised as seven principles: challenge-focused; open; human-centred; iterative; experimental and evidence-informed; scalable; and able to build capacities and skills.
  • The EU has been a leading proponent of social innovation over the last decade. Nevertheless, EU social innovation policy has been somewhat inconsistent across departments and there is scope to make better use of EU policy levers and funds to support social innovation.

Over the last decade, policymakers and public officials worldwide have shown a growing interest in social innovation. It is seen as a way to help address some of the biggest challenges facing governments and the societies they represent, from tackling climate change to promoting inclusive economic growth.

However, this interest has not yet been accompanied by a clear or comprehensive concept and framework for social innovation policy. In this report, we outline what a field of social innovation policy could encompass. We argue that it has two facets. It includes:

  • Public policy that enhances supply of and demand for social innovation, as well as creating a wider environment in which social innovations can thrive - ‘policy for social innovation’.
  • Policymaking that is in itself socially innovative, when it adopts the principles and tools of social innovation - ‘policy as social innovation’.

Using these categories, we first catalogue examples of policy approaches from around the world, and then look in detail at EU policy since 2010. Finally, we explore gaps and opportunities for future EU policy.

Policy recommendations 

We recommend that the EU should:

  • Create a more coherent cross-service agenda for social innovation.
  • Expand support for experimental, action research programme designs that explore 'next level' issues.
  • More deeply and systematically engage social innovation practitioners in policymaking.
  • Better facilitate knowledge sharing among the Member States.


Sophie Reynolds, Madeleine Gabriel, Charlotte Heales (The Young Foundation)


Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Madeleine Gabriel

Mission Director, sustainable future mission

Madeleine leads Nesta’s mission to create a sustainable future, which focuses on decarbonisation and economic recovery.

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