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How to support innovation using the ESF 11 November 2015

Posted by cooperatoby in Social enterprise.
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Social innovation is one of the buzziest words of the last few years – but once it is mentioned the almost inevitable follow-up is – “whatever it means…” Everyone knows that social innovation is a good thing, and they want more of it, from more people. But how do they know whether they have it or not? Even more problematically, how can they encourage its emergence?
In some senses this dilemma is a long-standing one: the European Commission has habitually refused to answer the question “what is innovation?”, retorting that “if we knew what it was, it wouldn’t be innovation”. Sometimes I have suspected that European programmes place such a premium on innovation purely because that is the institutional space left for them – the day-to-day stuff is left to the Member State level.
The popularisation of the social innovation meme by President Barroso and others has raised the stakes. In transnational work in the ESF, for example, social innovation is supposed to be mainstreamed. And innovation has to be more than creativity – it implies rigorous management in making change happen.

Flanders institutionalises innovation

Flanders is a region that has got ahead through innovation, and the Flemish ESF Agency is one of the few to take a serious and structured approach to encouraging innovation. It devotes 8.5% of its ESF budget – €32m – to innovation and transnationality. On 26-27 October it held a seminar in Brussels to selflessly transfer to other ESF managers the results of an 18-month project to improve the way the ESF supports innovation: Meer werk maken van innovatie voor werkgelegenheid en arbeidsmarkt. The project involved partners from the Czech Republic, Sweden and Poland. 70 people from the ESF all over the EU community attended the event.
Project activities included a literature review, study visits and exchange events, and its results are presented in a comprehensive 396-page toolkit. This focuses on service development but also says something about systems innovation.

Theoretical framework

The first thing to say is that the seminar was hard work – and I mean that in a good way. The content was challenging – even the bits when the participants were supposed to have the luxury of sitting back and absorbing presentations. When it came to doing exercises the effort demanded was even more. But it was well worth the effort, and Benedict Wauters is to be thanked and congratulated for sharing his results.
The content was unique in my experience in that it combined the most abstruse of theory with the most hands-on of practice – and took in some illuminating practical examples along the way.
The theoretical framework Flanders has adopted is based on Theory U which emphasises interactions between people, works upwards to transition theory and has the final goal of improving human welfare and development.
The theoretical underpinning came in the form of presentations from two EU-funded research projects on what social innovation is.

• Theory 1: A multilevel theory of transition

The first is TRANSIT (Transformative Social Innovation Theory), presented by Flor Avelino from Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
In her vocabulary, a transition is the sort of high-level innovation that takes between 20 and 50 years to occur, and is further-reaching than the three lower levels, a systems innovation, a process innovation or a product or service innovation. Transitions evolve over time: the challenge of peak oil became that of climate change and is now all about the economic crisis.
She defined 3 levels of socio-economic processes:
• The highest level is the landscape or underlying process such as climate change and population ageing
• In the middle comes the socio-economic regime, or set of dominant practices – such as an oil-based economy
• At the lowest level come niches – spaces for innovation that are opened up by technological developments – such as wind power or car-sharing
The theory holds that the regime will defend the status quo, so one of these transitions will happen only when it gets caught in a pincer movement from both sides at once: caught between a shock in the landscape – such as climate change – and the opening up of a technological niche like a new form of energy generation. To my simple mind this is a more developed way of saying there has to be both a supply and a demand for innovations, and no barriers in the process of matching them. But the theory puts it in dialectical rather than market terms.
Flanders SI -  the bigger picture of innovation.
A multilevel strategy for transition management therefore involves playing into landscape developments, challenging regimes and empowering niches to scale up.
Social innovation involves a change in the social relations through which we know, frame, organise and do things. This brings to the fore the concept of agency – what can people do? It is expressed in a set of new social movements which challenge the status quo. The project is studying 20 of these, focusing on Europe and Latin America, and including Impact Hubs, Ecovillages, Fab Labs and RIPESS.
The project is looking at how different narratives of change interact, including, in the field of ‘new economy’, the green economy, the collaborative economy, social entrepreneurship and the social economy, and the solidarity economy – i.e. changing the whole economic system including the private and public sectors. What they have in common is that they are hybrid – they challenge the boundaries between public and private, formal and informal, and for- profit and non-profit. Above all, they involve a shift in power relations. However it is unclear how power is shifting – in the case, for example of Airbnb. What seems like a transformation may in fact be a capture by the existing regime.

• Theory 2: Capability theory

The second research project, CRESSI – Creating Economic Space for Social Innovation, was presented by Nadia von Jacobi of Pavia University. It is applying Amartya Sen’s Capability Theory to social innovation. Basically this holds that social progress is about expanding people’s opportunities; it is not only about the resources people have, but the choices they can make. From a given set of resources (or endowments) – which include the physical environment, institutions, social networks and cognitive frames – people are subject to a set of ‘conversion factors’ – such as their individual traits and the context they find themselves in – which determine the ‘capability set’ of choices they have open to them. Social innovation occurs when the functionings people achieve feeds back and influences the resources available.
If people are to have greater agency, they need to be empowered. They need to have various sorts of power:
• power over – you can resist manipulation by others
• power with – you can act in groups
• power to – you can create new possibilities
• power from within – you can change yourself
Social innovation involves people forming networks and exerting power on three forces in society: institutions, social networks and cognitive frames. This bottom-up approach overcomes the pitfalls of the top-down logic, which treats people, as target groups – patients rather than agents, underestimates complexity and assumes it is neutral with regard to the existing asymmetry of power.

An example of service design

As regards practical tool for social innovation, seminar participants had a choice of two, and I chose service design, presented by Kelly Pollard and Laure Monbrun of PearsonLloyd, a London-based designers. In the A Better A&E project the consultants worked with the UK Department of Health and the Design Council to improve the quality of the waiting experience in accident and emergency depart¬ments of hospitals. The objective was to reduce aggression and violence against A&E staff, of which there are 55,000 cases each year in the UK, which cost the NHS €95m.
Flanders A better A&E resultsThe process they undertook was a little counterintuitive. Instead of tackling head-on the relatively small number of case of direct physical violence, they decided to reduce the frustration patients felt all the way through their visit to A&E, thus improving the quality of life for a great many more people.
The process they went through is known as the ‘double diamond’ (not the beer I used to avoid in the 70s) and comprises 4 stages: discover -> define -> develop -> deliver. It involved talking to the stakeholders to learn about their behaviour and needs, mapping the patient experience, and developing a clear set of charts and signs which would make sure that patients knew what was happening to them at any given moment. They also produced guidance for staff and are developing a mobile phone application. Equipping a hospital costs about €80,000 and typically shows a return on investment of 3:1.

Designing ESF calls for innovation

The seminar’s third section showed us how Flanders organises ESF calls for innovative projects. It holds separate calls for two types of innovation:
• innovation via exploration – for people with a challenge they need to meet
• innovation via adaptation – for people with a service that works well and deserves scaling up

It gives each project a 100% grant of €50,000 for a first phase lasting 6 months, and if the result is validated (by external experts) then it gets a follow-up grant of up to €150,000.
Flanders SI double diamondThe process is rigorous: in the first 6 months, projects have to produce a concept description, an experience map, a high-level business model, a concept test, a report on field results – and plan for phase 2. It is estimated that about half the applicants will go through to phase 2, which lasts 18 months. Nevertheless Flanders has received about 30 applications under each heading, with a lot of universities figuring among the applicants, but also some NGOs.

Further information

Check out the toolkit and a series of presentations!

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