Different concepts of social innovation

On January 16-17, 2014 our President Heather Roy was invited to speak at the conference "Social entrepreneurs: Have your say!" in Strasbourg. She contributed to the workshop "Systemic change: the role of civil society organisations and social enterprises". Even if not evident from the title, this workshop is about social innovation. Some time ago President Barroso affirmed: “Social innovation is not a panacea but if encouraged and valued it can bring immediate solutions to the pressing social issues citizens are confronted with. In the long term, I see social innovation as part of a new culture of empowerment that we are trying to promote”.

In the plenary sessions, some speakers referred to the relation between social enterprises and (social) innovation. To quote some, Vice-President Tajani said that social enterprises are innovateurs in their own nature, as they have to adapt to the needs of society. The EU research programme Horizon 2020 has a specific strand to support innovation, and a specific sub-strand will be to support innovation in social enterprises and by the means of social enterprises. On the contrary, the social entrepreneurs Letizia Moratti argued that social enterprises do not always need to be innovative (in fact some of them do the same things for long time). However, their merit is their capacity to anticipate the needs of society.

This exchange well reflects the tension between two different concepts of social enterprises and social innovation: those who think that social enterprises are always innovative and bring about social innovation; those who tend to think that social innovation has to come from new actors. At Social Platform we believe that both are not true: no one doubts about the intrinsic capacity of social enterprises to adapt to and anticipate social and societal needs, but this does not mean that they automatically produce social innovation. Social enterprises can be innovative, but do they always need to be so? We also think that it is not because you are a "new" actor that you create social innovation.

In a nutshell, Heather Roy was asked to elaborate on the following questions.

What is the role that social enterprises have in driving systemic change? What are the challenges they face?

Civil society organisations and social economy actors are often on the frontline of identifying social needs, new or unmet or inadequately met, because they are in direct contact with users on the ground. Furthermore, they are often able to collect data that is not available to authorities. At the same time, it is crucial that the conditions for social enterprises and NGOs to be innovative are created. One challenge could be the growing tendency to see innovation as having to come from a new actor. It is the action that should be innovative and impactful – it does not have to be a new actor.

Another challenge is that the growing focus on social innovation by the EU and member states might lead to limiting public financing only to the practices which are considered innovative, without clear criteria to define it and with the risk to jeopardise comprehensive and long-term approach, including financing, to social policies and services.

Good social innovation comes from well-funded, well operating environments… quality gives rise to quality. It is important to have freedom to be innovative, and not being forced to be innovative due to external pressures on resources.  Innovation also involves failures as well as successes.

What do we expect from the policy agenda?
The conditions for the development of socially innovative programs concern the funding, the laws, the policy development and the stakeholders' involvement. Public authorities, foundations and the EU should support financially social experimentations and social policy experimentations, whilst recognizing that experimentations can also fail. Failure should not mean that finance is automatically withdrawn or not disbursed. Funding opportunities from the EU and public authorities sources should include support to gather evidence concerning a social experiment (qualitative and quantitative analysis), research and evaluation of results.  

Laws need to ensure the quality of the services and the policy interventions. Innovations should be mainstreamed through policies and not short-term projects, as this can jeopardise the continuity of the services provided. Social innovation requires conditions for sustainability.

A collaborative approach between the different DGs concerned in the Commission, as well as a partnership with the relevant stakeholders, including civil society organisations, are key ingredients for spurring social innovations.

If you want to know more about Social Platform's views on social innovation, you can read our position paper.