Social innovation in mountain territories: insights from the conference “Mountain regions, territories of innovation”

“Mountain regions, territories of innovation” was the title of an international conference held on January 11-13, 2017 in Grenoble, France. The conference was organised by Labex Item, the platform for mountain research and territorial action in the French Northern Alps; it regroups academic and public institutions and other local stakeholders in the French departments of Savoie and Isère.

The aim of the conference was to discuss the relationship between mountain regions and innovation in the context of a wide variety of topics ranging from tourist resorts to social innovation and spatial management. SIMRA was well represented at the conference, with the specific goal of fostering discussion on the issue of social innovation. Project partners attended, moderated, or presented the SIMRA project in several sessions.

How to define social innovation in mountain territories?

Catie Burlando (UNIPD) and Manfred Perlink (UNIBE)
Catie Burlando (UNIPD) and Manfred Perlink (UNIBE)

The session “Transformative social innovations in mountain territories” co-organised and run by Manfred Perlik (Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern – a SIMRA partner) tried to answer the following questions:

How are social innovations different compared to other innovations?
– What are the specificities of social innovations in the mountains?
– What is an innovation in the context of a regional transformation process?

Several themes from different disciplines ranging from history to social anthropology, economic geography and political science were examined to address the socio-economic and cultural transformations in mountain areas, the relationship between regional actors and social innovation, as well as the specificities of social initiatives and governance in mountain regions.

Central issues were What is social innovation and how can we define it? To what extent are social innovations transformative? The presentations that took place during this session highlighted different definitions (see examples below), and SIMRA’s working definition was introduced:

Collective initiatives taken by citizens in response to social needs which are not otherwise fully satisfied by the market or political organisations (Klein and Harisson, 2007).
– Social innovations are new solutions that simultaneously meet a social need and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources (European Commission).
– The reconfiguring of social practices in response to challenges associated with society, economy or environment based on novel ideas and values. These practices include the creation of new institutions, networks and governance arrangements, and seek to enhance societal outcomes, especially but not exclusively for disadvantaged groups and recognising the likelihood of trade-offs among competing interests and outcomes. While these practices may include diverse institutions, they necessarily include the voluntary engagement of civil society actors [working definition based on the definition seen in the H2020 proposal of SIMRA (Nijnik et al., 2016) further developed by Slee et al. (in preparation)]

Several examples illustrated the richness of concepts associated with social innovation, which included references to new markets, governance, alternative networks, civil society mobilisation, cultural initiatives resources and relationships. For instance, one presentation focused on import-export dynamics in the macro-regional context of the Alps, highlighting the economic aspects of social innovation connected to competitiveness. Another presentation focused on territorial dynamics, asking how the origin and nature of relationships between residents of a region facilitate the emergence of social innovation, exogenously or endogenously.

How did SIMRA contribute?

mountains 2Many SIMRA partners are interested in exploring the issue of social innovation in mountainous regions. Such areas can be regarded as marginalized with regard to their geography (difficult terrain, remoteness of internal areas, limited infrastructure, etc.) but are also highly heterogeneous. These characteristics were introduced by Martin Price (Perth College, University of the Highlands and Islands – a SIMRA partner) in his keynote lecture.   Because mountain regions have specific constraints, looking at social innovations in mountain regions can help identify salient characteristics of these innovations and provide some answers regarding the patterns of emergence and development of social innovation in a physically constrained environment.

The conference included three SIMRA presentations largely based on joint considerations and shared views of team members from partner organizations and contributors: Carla Barlagne from the James Hutton Institute presented the SIMRA project with its conceptualisation of social innovation; Catie Burlando from UNIPD presented preliminary reflections on methods to evaluate social innovation in mountain areas; and Manfred Perlik from CDE (UNIBE) focused on the ambiguous character of innovation in the context of the Alps. In his point of view, a social innovation could be the questioning of the current Alpine specific strategies of regional development, and marketing.

The audience was reminded that social innovation has the potential to be a sustainable answer to economic and social crises. During a crisis, new modes of governance can rebuild trust relations and connections between individuals, thus also promoting economic relations and trade. A key element in the development of SIMRA is its emphasis on the involvement of stakeholders throughout the construction, implementation and evaluation of the project, particularly via the project’s Social Innovation Think Tank. SIMRA stakeholders can provide methodological advice, propose case studies, support network-building and offer feedback and contributions to ensure the project reflects the values it is trying to promote throughout the project and beyond.

Regarding evaluation methods, presentations and discussion during the conference highlighted how the identification of specific critical issues in the evaluation of social innovation can support more effective and inclusive mountain development policies via the adoption of indicators that capture the tangible and intangible elements of social innovation (e.g. network building, trust, quality of participation).

A few concluding remarks

mountains 4Transformative social innovation was presented at the conference in the context of mountainous regions. As mountains are part of global peripheries, experiences from the mountains can be fruitfully applied in other marginalised areas. While it was again recognized that there is no agreed definition of social innovation, and there might be a need for a general, rather universal, common vision of social innovation, it remains a very case- and context-specific phenomenon, so that several definitions can co-exist.

The definitions introduced by the different speakers focussed on two categories of scale. The first highlighted actions that emerge from and are led by individuals of civil society. The second related it to territorial innovation, seen as profoundly entrenched in the characteristics and dynamics of territorial institutions with their norms, values and conventions. Despite the differences, both types of definition stressed the importance of territorial embeddedness but also networks (formal or informal) as drivers of social innovation. Both reiterated the potential transformative power of social innovation and drive to create change within governance systems. For example, the emergence of social innovation was analysed while keeping in mind the long trajectory of a territory’s cultural legacy, highlighting how it can lead to changes in practices and consequently to a rethinking of norms within territories. Finally, strategies to build resilience and to adapt were discussed in terms of how they are linked to social innovation.


LAUREN MOSDALELauren Mosdale (Euromontana)

maria-nijnik_0Maria Nijnik (James Hutton Institute)

Carla_BarlagneCarla Barlagne (James Hutton Institute)

catie burlandoCatie Burlando (UNIPD)

Manfred Perlik_kleinManfred Perlik (UNIBE)


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)

Insights from the 8th International Social Innovation Research Conference by the Centre for Mountain Studies

Last week, the 8th International Social Innovation Research Conference (ISIRC 2016) was held in Glasgow. It was an informative and inspiring conference that gathered together a great number of researchers –mainly European but also from other parts of the world- to discuss their recent research in the field of social innovation. Although our project is in still in its early stages and so it is not ready to disseminate findings yet, it was nonetheless visible at the Conference. Our colleagues from all around the world received a SIMRA leaflet within their Conference packages and a poster describing our project was displayed in the main hall.

Other exciting projects studying social innovation in rural areas were presented during the Conference which gave us a significant opportunity to learn about what our colleagues are already doing in this field. For instance, there is RurInno, which was presented by Ralph Richter from the Leibniz Institute for Research on Society and Space (IRS, Germany). This project studies rural enterprises as drivers of social innovation and local development and is focused on four case studies across Europe: NIDA (Poland), Stevia Hells (Greece), Otelo (Austria), and Ballyhoura  (Ireland). Also, Andrew Copus, from Nordregio, presented conclusions of the SIN project which focuses on territorial social innovation in demographically vulnerable municipalities in the Nordic Countries and Scotland.

Apart from examples of studies that have parallels with SIMRA, the ISIRC 2016 was a good opportunity to discover the trending topics in Social Innovation research. Plenary and parallel sessions contained an interesting variety of possible typologies and categories to describe social innovation. For example: generic, tailored, and systemic innovation; micro-innovation, ‘exnovation’, frugal innovation, disruptive innovation… However, all of them seem to share a common goal which constitutes the heart of the social innovation concept: the pursuit of a positive social change.  This idea appears to be the core of the social innovation features far more than the ‘innovative’ aspects.  In this regard, another frequently discussed idea is that all innovations must be considered in context, i.e.  developing a project that is similar to those developed in other places does not mean that it should not be considered as social innovation.

Beyond the big common ideas, each presentation approached the topic from a particular perspective and through a lot of case of studies, all stages of social innovation initiatives –from funding to impacts- were discussed during those three days.

The six stages of social innovation. Source: Murray, Caulier-Grice & Mulgan (2010: 11)
The six stages of social innovation. Source: Murray, Caulier-Grice & Mulgan (2010: 11)

There was also time for critical perspectives on the topic, and the ‘dark side’ of social innovation was discussed through the sessions. Two of the most spread ideas are that: i) innovations are not always good, and ii) social innovations must be carried out by people and not to people. In this sense, Taco Brandsen (Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands) delivered one of the most provocative presentations comparing social innovation to a fashion show. From his point of view, excessive importance is given to the ‘new’ part of the social innovation initiatives while the sense of newness itself can take the focus away from models that work. Excessive focus is sometimes put also on best practices while failures are not taken into account and the role of small and informal initiatives and projects downplayed. These trends altogether boost somehow a particular type of professional social innovation industry following almost the market logic. In fact, the relation between social innovation and capitalism was present in the theme of the Conference (Social Innovation in the 21st Century: Beyond Welfare Capitalism?). So, it is not rare that Ana Maria Peredo (University of Victoria, Canada) spoke directly about how social entrepreneurship would be furthering neoliberalism; although she developed arguments about the resistance components that are deeply rooted in social innovation initiatives such as the prevalence of commons.

Ultimately, the scholarly community seems to agree that more focus should be placed on the study of small-scale initiatives and social innovations run by communities even if they are not formally organised. So, there is an interesting niche to be explored which aligns well with the work we are doing on social innovation developed in rural areas. ISIRC 2016 provided an exciting and inspiring overview of the research fields on social innovation and discussion of concepts and ideas that SIMRA is going to explore.


Murray, R., Caulier-Grice, J., & Mulgan, G. (2010). The open book of social innovation. London: National endowment for science, technology and the art.



Diana Valero (Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College, UHI)

Integrating social preferences in the management of river basins: the Asopos case study in Greece

Asopos River Basin (RB) is part of the water district of East Sterea Ellada covering a total surface of 450 km2 and extending to Evoikos Gulf. It has an annual runoff of 70 hm3 and a population of approximately 70,575 citizens residing in the broader area. The Asopos River catchment basin is among the highest industrial and most polluted areas of Greece. It is also the only remnant wetland between two larger coastal wetlands that belong to the NATURA 2000 network, those of Sperheios and Shinias; as such, it contributes significantly to the conservation of habitats and to the coherence of the network. Every sector of economic activity in the area (primary, secondary, tertiary and households) has a different water use. In the agricultural-livestock sector water is used for crop irrigation or livestock rearing purposes. In the industrial-artisanship sector, on the other hand, it is used for washing and coloring (textiles), steel production, cement production, oil processing, energy production etc. Finally, regarding the tourism and domestic sector of the economy, water use concerns home supply by the authorized providers. Due to the different uses and needs across sectors, optimal policy design that allocates water optimally through space and time between these activities and ecosystem preservation becomes very challenging. Even more, when the unregulated operation of businesses in the industrial sector as well as the uncontrolled use of water and application of fertilizers/pesticides in the agricultural sector have led to excessive water abstraction, nitrate pollution and contamination by heavy metals, including hexavalent chromium. Until recently, no Management Plan or a Monitoring Program to cope with this situation existed. As a result, residents of the basin area, mostly low-income individuals with a high percentage of employment in the primary sector, ended up facing health issues as well as downgraded quality of life.

Source: Matiatos, Ioannis. 2016. “Nitrate Source Identification in Groundwater of Multiple Land-Use Areas by Combining Isotopes and Multivariate Statistical Analysis: A Case Study of Asopos Basin (Central Greece).” Science of the Total Environment 541: 802–14.
Source: Matiatos, Ioannis. 2016. “Nitrate Source Identification in Groundwater of Multiple Land-Use Areas by Combining Isotopes and Multivariate Statistical Analysis: A Case Study of Asopos Basin (Central Greece).” Science of the Total Environment 541: 802–14.

Social innovations emerge to strengthen actors’ ability to respond to societal changes such as the environmental degradation in the area of Asopos RB. In 2010, the National Bank of Greece, the Hellenic Post Bank and the A. G. Papandreou Foundation funded a 3-year project to tackle health problems associated with arsenic pollution and with the implementation of the WFD in Asopos RB with Assistant Professor Phoebe Koundouri leading the scientific team which consisted of 5 universities (Athens University of Economics & Business, Greece; University of  Toulouse, France; Oregon State University, USA; University of Waikato, New Zealand; University of Ioannina, Greece) and nonprofit organizations. The action was embraced by local authorities, businessmen (farmers, industrialists) and environmentalists who worked together for the common purpose. The initiative resulted in a comprehensive management plan that promoted sustainable development in terms of socio-economic welfare as it characterized, quantified and integrated people’s preferences. What is more, it introduced a new institutional environment where past attitudes towards water pollution are discarded and stakeholders realize how their interactions are critical in achieving the common goal. Finally, it highlighted the importance of the concept of Total Economic Value (the value of environmental good that is derived from its direct consumption but also from its indirect consumption, as well as non-use value) in the holistic management of interactions between humans and nature. Currently, local authorities are developing the social and business network needed for the implementation of the suggested management plan.

More details

Project website:

Koundouri, P., and N. Papandreou (editors) (2013)Water Resources Management Sustaining Socio-Economic Welfare: The Implementation of the European Water Framework Directive in Asopos River Basin in Greece. Springer Publishing, Global Issues in Water Policy.


AchillVassilopouloseas Vassilopoulos (ICRE8: International Centre for Research on the Environment and the Economy; Dept. of Agricultural Economics and Rural Development, Agricultural University of Athens, Greece)


Phoebe KPhoebe_Koundourioundouri (School of Economic Sciences, Athens University of Economics and Business, Greece; Grantham Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK; ICRE8: International Center for Research on the Environment and the Economy)