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Social innovation – the continent fights back 29 June 2013

Posted by cooperatoby in social economy, Social enterprise.
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300520133026-9 Heinz Becker social innovation conf, EPContinental Europe has evolved a substantial sector of economic activity which is based on values, not on results. It contests the EC’s subjugation of social innovation to a results-based paradigm.

The expert conference organised by Heinz Becker MEP on 30th May, the day after the Social Innovation Competition award ceremony, advanced quite a different view of social innovation from the transatlantic one being advanced by the Young Foundation and the European Commission. The examples put forward in the EPP’s booklet Social Innovation – Priority for a European Agenda. Social Enterprises as EU-Driving Force remind us that social innovation is no new thing. It describes 62 social innovations submitted by social economy organisations from around Europe and compiled by Caritas Austria. They include audio books, ‘walking buses’, companies against HIV, microfinance and much more.

It’s obviously a labour of love for Heinz Becker, who confessed that being the parliament’s rapporteur on social enterprise has changed his life! He also said a rare public thank you to Gerhard Bräunling, who has done so much behind the scenes to move EU policy on social enterprises and inclusive entrepreneurship forward in a coherent fashion.

But how to make social innovation a priority for the EU’s agenda? Speakers from DGs Enterprise and Employment noted that for the Commission social innovation is about growth and jobs. It has published a guide to how to support social innovation through the Structural Funds, and Progress is supporting pilots in “social policy experimentation”. What is called ”non-technological and social innovation” is also mainstreamed, though little discussed, in the enormous Horizon 2020 research programme. Two networks of social innovation incubators are soon to be launched to help flesh out this skeleton. DIESIS is involved in one of these, BENISI. There remains the suspicion, voiced by Euclid’s Filippo Addarii, that EU funding remains too risk-averse.
Intervening via Skype, Uli Grabenwarter of the European Investment Fund said that we are at a turning point in the definition of value creation, which implies a redivision of roles between sectors. He described “social impact accelerators” as platforms for public and private finance to collaborate.

The social relevance of innovation

Then came the reminder that social innovation goes back a long way in Europe – indeed there has been a Zentrum für Soziale Innovation (ZSI) in Vienna since 1990, as its Scientific Director, Josef Hochgerner, attested. Its slogan is “all innovations are socially relevant”. The important issues are how they are socially relevant, and to whom. Since WW2 society has become an annex to the economy and this needs to be reversed. Our hierarchy of priorities needs to run from environment at the top to society and down to the economy – not the reverse. We are suffering from financialisation – where profit is made from finance rather than from production or trade.
For Mr Hochgerner, who acts is as important as what is done. He offers an analytical definition of social innovation as “new practices to resolve social challenges which are taken up by individuals, social groups and organisations” (not the market). He prefers this to the more market-friendly version promoted by the Commission and the Young Foundation, which focuses on innovation both in the ends and the means, and which he feels is circular. The ZSI definition pays more attention to methods of social organisation (and is thus implicitly more ‘political’). The process, according to this model, consists of 4 ‘I’s: idea -> intervention -> implementation -> impact.
Austria has even had a prize for social innovation since 2005, judged on the criteria of novelty, effectiveness and replicability.

Cultural function of social enterprises

Professor Volker Then of the Centre for Social Investment and Social Innovation at Heidelberg University then discussed the value base of social enterprise. In his view, social enterprises are an important result of “social investment” – which he assigns a much narrower definition than does the Commission: “private contributions to the public good”. They are hybrid businesses that rely on a wide variety of resources, and their long-term sustainability is clearly related to the welfare regime and the regulated quasi-markets it supports. They are multi-faceted, as they serve economic and social functions, build social capital and networks, and serve a cultural function, because they express values. They therefore also have a political function, as they represent how we should live together. They are not just normal businesses that don’t distribute profits – they are different in nature. And it is ultimately civil society that decides on the sustainability of social investment.

Path dependency

The conference continued with two panel discussions involving among others NESsT, Euclid, Eurodiaconia and Caritas. The point had been made that there is a path dependency: social innovation doesn’t spring from nowhere. If the European institutions want to energise social, innovations into existence, they had better start with existing civil society organisations, which have been applying their efforts to social issues for decades.

Heather Roy from Eurodiaconia summed up the plea for a more process-based approach: good social innovation comes from well-funded well-regulated sources – quality will bring forth quality. It cannot be driven by cost-cutting. We need to make it sustainable through funding and capacity building. It should be done from a position of strength. And it should involved all stakeholders, not only a few promoting bodies.

The conclusion of all this is that The Employment DG, not Enterprise, should be leading work on social innovation, but somehow that opportunity has been passed over.

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Comments»

1. Smoke, mirrors and social investment | Toby at tipp(l)ing point - 30 June 2013

[…] the chance to redeem their reputations by putting their money to a socially useful use. The second was the riposte of the continental ‘European social model’: we have been doing social […]


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