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Social innovation in action

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The EU has identified social innovation as crucial in helping Europe meet the challenges of the 21st century, and a number of initiatives have recently been put forward to spread awareness of social innovation and encourage the private sector to get involved. Central to this strategy was the recent launch of the Social Innovation Europe initiative. In addition, changes in society create new business opportunities to develop new services and products in sectors such as care, transport and education.

Social innovation, a concept that has been in practice for decades, has had a direct and positive impact on the lives of millions. One only has to think of social enterprises, cooperative banks, hospices and microfinance to see how certain ideas have met pressing social needs and created new social relationships or collaborations. This is social innovation at its core, and it makes a difference.

While the concept is not new, the idea of social innovation as a field or policy is quite new. The EU has identified social innovation as a key means of responding to societal challenges in which the boundary between 'social' and 'economic' blurs, and wants to see this field become an integral part of social policies and schemes as it can meet changing social needs which are not adequately addressed by the market or the public sector.

A flagship for the future

The growth of social innovation, however, has often been hampered by insufficient knowledge of the sector, limited support of social enterprise and social entrepreneurship activities, and insufficient scaling-up of good practices. In order to address this issue, the Innovation Union, the ambitious blueprint unveiled by the European Commission in October last year, is not just about enterprise and markets, but it contains also a focus on public-sector and social innovation. This flagship of the EU’s Europe 2020 Strategy set out a strategic approach designed to harness innovative solutions to address pressing challenges such as climate change, energy, health and an ageing population.

As part of this strategy, the European Commission has recently launched the Social Innovation Europe initiative, a networked 'virtual hub' and expertise centre for social entrepreneurs, the public and third sectors. The aim of the initiative is to contribute towards building a dynamic, entrepreneurial and innovative Europe and delivering on the objectives of inclusive, smart and sustainable growth.

Facing up to the challenges

Social Innovation Europe is about connecting people and ideas, and about integrating social innovation across sectors and borders. By 2014, this initiative will have established itself as the meeting place –virtual and real – for social innovators, entrepreneurs, non-profit organisations, policy-makers and anyone else inspired by social innovation.

“It’s about helping Europe get through the next few years,” says Social Innovation Europe Initiative project leader Louise Pulford, of the Young Foundation.

Addressing social innovation at the European level, says Pulford, is important as lessons need to be learnt across borders. “The basic point is that we cannot find all the answers in our own countries,” she says. “And it’s about learning from successes as well as mistakes.” Furthermore, the private sector has huge potential when it comes to social innovation. “Social innovation should be integrated into all structures, integrated into all societies, and this goes very much for the private sector. Is it social innovation if it makes money? I think it is social innovation if it has social value.” The technology sector, for example, will find huge potential in the field of health if it develops creative solutions to address challenges such as an ageing population.

The Social Innovation Europe initiative plans to incorporate the ideas and examples generated at the launch event into a series of reports. The first report on Financing Social Innovations will be published in June 2011. Subsequent reports, which will deal with evaluating social innovations and recommending next steps, are due to be published in November 2011 and May 2012, respectively.

Furthermore, the Social Innovation Europe Initiative will open its virtual hub early May 2011. Anyone interested in social innovation is welcome to use and to contribute their ideas and activities to this hub.

Solidarity and responsibility

The EU is also currently promoting and coordinating social innovation in Europe through a number of other initiatives. The European Social Fund (ESF),for example, has made significant investments in social innovations, ranging from supporting local partnerships and enhancing the capacity building and networking of local stakeholders to implementing active labour market policies and partnerships under the EQUAL Community Initiative. In the current programming period, the ESF is investing more than €2 billion in institutional capacity building. In the Structural Funds, there are many examples of social innovation in cities and in rural areas. Under CIP and Framework Funding Programmes, research and innovation is available for technologies that help older people live independently for longer, and where social scientists work together with NGOs and citizens on social cohesion in cities.

It is clear that coordinated actions at the EU level in the field of social innovation are needed in order to properly address the societal challenges ahead. “In a nutshell, social innovation is for the people and with the people,” said European Commission President José Manuel Barrosopdf Choose translations of the previous link  at the launch of the Social Innovation Europe Initiative. “It is about solidarity and responsibility. It is good for society and it enhances society's capacity to act. The [economic] crisis has made it clear that most of the challenges we are facing have taken on an increasingly social dimension from poverty and social exclusion to demographic ageing and to the needs for better governance and more sustainable resource management.”

Europe’s pioneering spirit

The work of six prominent social innovation pioneerspdf Choose translations of the previous link  was highlighted during the Social Innovation Europe launch conference in March 2011. Ana Vale of EQUAL in Portugal discussed her model for mainstreaming social innovations, while Vickie Cammack of Tyze Personal Networks in Canada talked about creating a secure, personal, online network for people facing life-challenges, as well as the savings this kind of initiative could generate for governments funding healthcare.

Gorka Espiau discussed a Social Innovation Park in Bilbao, Spain, and the benefits of making social innovations marketable, while Martin Hirsch of the Agency for Civil Service in France argued for the use of experimental techniques in social circumstances. Simon Roberts of Ideas Bazaar in the UK talked about using information technology to connect older people. Finally, Miroslaw Miller of the Warclawskie Centrum EIT+ in Poland considered the need for academics to break out of the ivory tower and collaborate with the private and public sectors.


'Policy Development for Industrial Innovation' Unit,
Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry

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