Social innovation in forests: buzzword or opportunity?

Article originally published on Medforest.

What is social innovation? Over the last decades, social innovation has gained significant popularity as a process able to tackle societal challenges and improve well-being via the direct engagement of the civil society. Hundreds of initiatives have claimed to be linked to this concept both in urban and rural contexts and in all topics and domains. Is social innovation yet another fuzzy word in a modern century of trending topics and well-designed marketing strategies? One of the aims of the H2020 SIMRA project (Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas) is also this one: to identify and map what are the key variables desirable for Social Innovation to occur, so as to identify success (and failure) cases, and develop methods for their appraisal and assessment.

During the VI Mediterranean Forest Week, which took place from 1 to 5 April in Brummana, Lebanon, hundreds of researchers, policy-makers and other relevant stakeholders from the wide Mediterranean basin gathered to discuss Mediterranean-wide forestry issues. Emerging topics included: the role of forests for achieving NDC targets for COP21, existing linkages between forests and other sectors (water, cities and biodiversity), forest communication, socio-ecological resilience of forests and many more. Social Innovation was indeed one of them, with a SIMRA-organised workshop aiming at exploring the role of the Mediterranean region as an incubating model for social innovation, presenting real cases that demonstrate elements for success and best practices for replication and learning purposes.Continue reading

Participants of the 2016 EFIMED Week. © Giuseppe Tripodi.

Social innovation underpinning Mediterranean forest bioeconomy. Insights from the EFIMED Week 2016

The 2016 EFIMED week was recently, held at the core of the Calabria Region (Italy). A marvelous mixture of pastures, fruits orchards and forests with the sea in the far distance framed the event, summarizing in one sight all the main features of rural landscapes in Southern Italy. This multidisciplinary event brought together partners from different European and Southern Mediterranean regions so as to discuss: “smart Mediterranean forestry, bioeconomy and social integration”.

Prof. Laura Secco
Prof. Laura Secco (Univ. Padova and SIMRA Project). Photo: Flickr

The need of societal changes and innovation in an era of crises in terms of economy, cultural identity (urbanization) and migration fluxes, was stressed both from foresters and non- forester participants. “Are forests a mean of social integration or is social integration a mean for forest management?” was a key question posed by Prof. Laura Secco (Univ. Padova). The debate suggested that to build up innovative bioeconomy strategies, technological and process innovations are to be integrated with changing social realities. That would strengthen the resilience and effectiveness of the bioeconomy strategy within the forestry sector.

Some cases of social innovation in forest-based projects were presented. Joachim Englert (SocialForest) is a social entrepreneur who works for labor integration of unemployed young people and migrants -a vulnerable segment of the Catalan society- in the forest sector. Joachim drew attention to the need of evaluating social forestry businesses for their work quality rather than for the social element per se, which is fundamental within the business culture.

Moreover, forests hold a rich potential for innovative services and related jobs, i.a. forest pedagogics, forest geragogics, forest therapy. Petra Schwarz (Austrian Research Centre for Forests) highlighted the complementary of these new services within modern bioeconomy models.

A Greek case helped in understanding bottlenecks for social innovation in marginalized rural areas. Spyridon Mamalis (Kavala Institute of Technology) explained how the Greek economic crisis was “turned into opportunity” when thousands of youngsters decided to return to the rural areas to start new green businesses. However, the lack of infrastructure and public services to encourage entrepreneurship, act as insurmountable barriers for young innovators impeding the establishment of profitable and lasting businesses.

Participants of the 2016 EFIMED Week. © Giuseppe Tripodi.
Participants of the 2016 EFIMED Week. © Giuseppe Tripodi.

Immigrants in rural areas constitute a chance and a challenge. Alina Sabangeanu (Kogayon Association) showcased the weak integration of immigrants in a Model Forest governance system in central Spain. Immigrants constitute an important link in the wild mushroom value chain. However, conflicts with locals arise based on prejudices, hence becoming neglected in the development strategies. An opposite example was the emotional presentation by the Mayor of Riace (Italy). The willingness of his local community to revive of traditional practices, to renovate abandoned houses and to rejuvenate the local economy triggered the successful integration of 550 immigrants within a local population of about 1800 inhabitants.


Elena Górriz Misfud (EFIMED)

Valentino Govigli (EFIMED)

Innovate, folks!

Last 19th and 20th of October, the SwitchMed Connect 2016 event was held in Barcelona.  Such meeting aims to build strong network among social innovators in the Mediterranean basin as to scale up solutions, increase awareness and exchange knowledge and best practices.

Valentino M. Govigli (EFIMED) took part in this very inspirational conference. The event was structured in innovator talks and thematic tracks, namely Civil Society, Entrepreneurs, Policy, Finance, and Industry. The thematic tracks carried the audience through a journey of exciting innovative projects and bottom-up solutions for modern societal challenges across the whole Mediterranean basin. Some of the thematic covered included energy supply, education, water and waste management, topics all very relevant for the advocated switch towards a new circular and inclusive economy.

Switchers were the core of the event, as enablers of social innovation to move towards a more sustainable and responsible world.

These are just some of the new projects that Switchers from around the Mediterranean have developed and presented during the event.

One of the organizers, the SCP/RAC (Regional Activity Centre for Sustainable Consumption and Production) trains Mediterranean practitioners about entrepreneurship and eco-innovation. Following the Civil Society Track, SCP/RAC presented some examples on the needs of Mediterranean local trainers. The willingness of local stakeholders towards the development of collaborative networks emerged as success factor. Within a dynamic working atmosphere, participants got a clear awareness of the need of peer-to-peer learning and the development of long-lasting cooperation networks.

Innovate, folks!

Author: Valentino M. Govigli (EFIMED)