The Social Innovation family: what about the social economy and digital social innovation?

During the European Industry Days, taking place in Brussels, on 5-6 February 2019, a special focus was given to the wider family of social innovation including social enterprises and digital social innovation. Both the European Economic and Social Council (EESC) and DIESIS, the EU network specialised in supporting social economy and social enterprise development, organised events taking stock of the current policy situation and providing concrete examples.

How are social economy and digital social innovation part of the social innovation family?

In a rapidly changing economic and technological context, different drivers have emerged driving social impact. For instance, technological solutions although often categorised as classical innovation can develop in an intuitive way, without centralised governmental support and deliver benefits in terms of traceability, fair pricing, common verified standards, consumer safety for instance. These characteristics find an echo in the SIMRA definition of social innovation highlighting the reconfiguration of social practices, the engagement of civil society actors and the enhancement of well-being.

Indeed, social enterprises and digital solutions are closer to civil society in a way as they are easily accessible, and the added value of their existence is easy to identify. They can also be considered as tools for scaling-up local initiatives and sustaining their social impact. Platforms in particular are tools for cooperation and enablers for the development of further initiatives. For instance, the example of open source software was given to illustrate how platforms could create a shared technology solution for local uptake – working in a similar manner to cooperatives.

Concrete illustration in rural areas

During both events organised during the European Industry Days, the concept of blockchain i.e. an innovative digital system which records transactions in an inalterable manner, was discussed time and time again. From an external point of view, the application in rural areas seemed rather distant as they are often seen as less-connected areas. However, here are 3 concrete applications in rural areas:

  • SunContract: SunContract is a Slovenian energy-trading platform that utilizes blockchain technology to create a new business model for buying and selling electricity. SunContract joins together Independent Power Producers and Consumers. They connect to the decentralized energy market platform through SunContract mobile APP. Only renewable energy is traded, and the users can set their own buying/selling price.
  • Ridygo: Ridygo is a French cooperative and participatory society for real-time carpooling on short distance trips. Ridygo users are able to participate, with employees, in its governance. According to their data, 50% of job-seekers have already refused employment or training for reasons related to mobility so they have invented a business model that allows job seekers to travel for free with Ridygo. Transactions are concluded thanks to an app.
  • SavingFood: SavingFood offers a solution to the food waste challenge by developing an online networked community of various stakeholders that facilitates the redistribution of surplus food and leftover crops for the benefit of the vulnerable groups of our society.

Challenges and policy options

Although the enthusiasm around these digital and entrepreneurial solutions is encouraging for rural areas and entrepreneurs, many academia and policy-makers highlighted their limits and incurred risks during the European Industry Days. These risks include the problem of the data used in ICT tools which needs to be of good quality, safely stored, accessible by data owners and used ethically. Additionally, to data protection risks, in some Member States still, the status for social economy entrepreneurs hasn’t been created and they encounter serious funding and legal problems. Finally, of course, the digitalisation of rural areas still remains a problem in many EU regions.

For this reason, the European Parliament’s intergroup “Social Economy Europe” has published a memorandum with 10 proposals for the European elections 2019, which you can read here. Indeed, social economy and social enterprises are benefitting from a growing number of EU policy initiatives such as the Social Challenge Innovation Platform, the European Social Innovation Competition, the future InvestEU initiative, the European Social Pillar, etc. Indeed, social innovation and civil society are supported through European Structural Funds and the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation, as well as policies that connect to SDGs. However, they barely mentioned in the CAP except for the Smart Villages initiative.

Regarding the CAP, SIMRA supports a mandatory cross-cutting principle for social innovation to be used in relation to any nationally designed measure of the Rural Development Programme (RDP), alongside the wider application of Community-Led Local Development. Social innovation could thereby provide a policy accelerator for any specified measure of the RDP to be used at the discretion of Member States, complementing other initiatives such as Smart Villages, results-based measures at ecosystem and catchment scale, and of especial relevance in marginalised rural areas.

Visit the “Resources” section on the SIMRA website to read our policy briefs.


Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)

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