The Committee of the Regions (CoR) unanimously adopted an opinion on social innovation during the plenary session of 11 May 2017. The opinion is entitled “Social innovation as a new tool for addressing societal challenges” and was coordinated by rapporteur Marcelle Hendrickx.
Why is Social Innovation important?
The CoR defines social innovation as “new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships and partnerships (BEPA)”. While the CoR points out the importance of a bottom-up approach with the example of consumer panels notably, SIMRA’s definition of social innovation includes the dimension of civil society engagement and within our project, social innovation refers to “the reconfiguring of social practices, in response to societal challenges, which seeks to enhance outcomes on societal well-being and necessarily includes the engagement of civil society actors”.
Social innovation is considered both by the CoR and SIMRA to be an important instrument for tackling current social challenges (such as unemployment, the ageing of society, the integration of immigrants, climate change, rural decline, etc.) and for improving the Europeans’ quality of life. Social innovation can bring new solutions to problems in rural areas, especially in marginalised rural areas, which are going to have to re-invent their role, and their capacity to innovate. However, much remains to be done to link social innovations with the desired policy outcomes.
Barriers to Social Innovation at the European level
The CoR points out 3 main barriers to the promotion of social innovation in the EU and the implementation of social innovation initiatives: governance, funding, and the generalised emphasis on technological innovation.
Firstly, concerning governance, according to the opinion, “promoting social innovation often requires local authorities to play a leadership and coordinating role, in terms of bringing stakeholders together, promoting good initiatives, creating flexible legal frameworks and ensuring that knowledge is shared”. This barrier is also recognised by SIMRA who identified governance arrangements as one of the major social practices to be reconfigured.
Secondly, regarding funding, no specific calls, programmes nor financial instruments specifically target social innovation on the ground yet. Reasons for this could be that projects are too small in scale; that partners are small and non-traditional; and/or that timing of European calls doesn’t match the development pattern of small projects (some social innovation examples demonstrate that too early funding might paralyse bottom-up collaboration emergence). The opinion also points out the complexity of the regulatory framework which can put off applicants. However, social innovation is gaining in visibility at the European Commission level and in another opinion on the CAP post-2020, the CoR has already called for more research funded by the EU budget and the European Investment Bank on agricultural and rural cooperation, in particular towards social innovation in rural areas (local public services for agricultural production methods, small-scale processing and local distribution of agricultural products).
Finally, about the emphasis on technological innovation, the CoR feels that in the Europe 2020 Strategy, disproportionate emphasis is placed on the technological side of innovation, to the detriment of social innovation – although both are supposed to complement each other.
The CoR asks from the Commission for more recognition of social innovation and everything that it entails (specific funding instruments, knowledge exchange opportunities, new policies, etc.) on one hand, as well as for new monitoring and assessment tools to be developed on the second hand. According to the opinion, those new evaluation methods -and associated indicators- “would allow the results of social innovation to be measured, the impact thereof assessed, and for this information and the success stories to be made known. It would also make it easier to attract funding”. This is exactly the kind of results SIMRA aims to achieve, by contributing to the understanding and evaluation of social innovation in marginalised rural areas with a novel approach that builds on the integration of empirical and transdisciplinary knowledge to increase validity of results. Project partners are working right now on evaluation methods of social innovation and a social innovation database of good practices will also soon be available on the SIMRA project’s website.
The CoR particularly stresses the parallel to be made with the EU Urban Agenda where the Commission, Member States, and towns and cities map out the practicability of EU policy and legislation at local level to also ask of the European Commission, when formulating social innovation policies, to expressly take into account how they could be implemented at local and regional level.
How can SIMRA contribute to the recommendations of the CoR?
SIMRA will develop a framework and methods to identify, understand and evaluate social innovation, as well as ways of supporting and sustaining socially innovative initiatives, in order to bridge the existing gap on that subject between research, policy and practice. SIMRA will support the widest possible community engaging in social innovation, particularly in Mediterranean marginalised rural areas. The aim is to create, thanks to the project, collaborative and learning opportunities where local stakeholders (communities, researchers, businesses) could work together towards the realization of social innovation initiatives (new networks, business opportunities, etc.), which could leave a lasting legacy in the area where they are promoted. The transdisciplinary nature of the project is meant to involve three types of stakeholders: representatives of key organizations and actors in rural development, stakeholders supported by the project’s case studies and innovative actions, and other regionally and locally grounded stakeholders. The research is designed to ensure that project results feed policy formation at all scales and also to support effectively the community engaging in social innovation, with particular reference to Mediterranean marginalised rural areas.
For more information, take a look at SIMRA’s website here!