The meaning of Social Innovation – it has to be meaningful

On January 16-17, 2013 the Commission conference "Social entrepreneurs: Have your say!" will take place in Strasbourg. This big event is the closure of the Social Business Initiative launched two years ago by Vice-President Tajani, Commissioner Andor and Commissioner Barnier.

Our President Heather Roy has been invited to speak in the workshop on January 16 "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 that: “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”.

We welcome the increased attention that the EU agenda has been paying to social innovation. For us the meaning of social innovation is that it’s meaningful, in that it should ensure the wellbeing of people and bring added social value. Yet, even though there is increased attention being paid to social innovation, at the EU level there is no clear common definition. Without clear criteria to define it you run the risk of limiting public financing to practices which are “innovative” but which are not meaningful or do not necessarily take a comprehensive or long-term approach to social policies and services

In our position paper on Social Innovation we outlined nine criteria which must be (mostly) met in order for a social innovation to be considered meaningful.  These range from the novelty of the needs being addressed, to its potential for upscaling, and that it goes beyond just technological innovation for the benefit of users. We also consider the importance of involving civil society organisations  (including organisations representing users, users’ associations and non-profit service providers) and social economy actors throughout the 4 step process of social innovation. These organizations can bring added value and have a specific role to play at each stage. Often they are on the frontline in identifying new social needs and understanding what does and does not work. They also play a crucial role in helping to assess the impact of a social innovation on social needs which can help authorities to decide which innovations should be scaled up along with the cost of implementing or not implementing them.

Finally to ensure that the EU and other decision makers play their role in supporting social innovation it is essential that they commit to supporting, facilitating, spreading and making sustainable innovations which are meaningful. Our paper also outlines a number of policy recommendations in this regard.