Social innovation in EU policy

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The Innovation Union flagship initiative

This describes social innovation as follows (s. 2.4.4):

A recent OECD report describes the ‘new nature of innovation’ and its characteristic drivers. One driver transforming the way companies innovate increasingly sees users involved in the co-creation of value, resulting in so-called ‘user-driven innovation’, while another sees public sector challenges – e.g. the challenge of delivering better health and welfare systems to ever more demanding and discerning citizens – driving a wave of so-called ‘social innovation’, which is likely to call for new interactions and partnerships between the public and private sectors for innovation activities that have a social benefit. Underpinning all these developments, there is increasing evidence that ICTs, especially recent social media applications, are important enablers of open, user-driven and social innovation....
Social innovation is of particular importance for policy development because of the important role that governments are expected to play in the resolution of societal problems. Social innovations can be defined in terms of both ends (new solutions to societal problems) and means (the new forms of social organisation needed to ensure their delivery). They necessarily involve new forms of organisation and interaction that respond to social demands for new and better ways of resolving societal problems and satisfying social needs. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which social innovation occurs because of a distinct lack of adequate metrics, but there is no doubt that the demand for social innovation, in terms of ends and means, is increasing given the scale and diversity of societal problems that have to be resolved.

The paper continues:

5.2. Increasing social benefits
The public sector needs to deliver new and better services that respond to users’ evolving needs and expectations. Social innovation, defined in Section 2.4.4 as new forms of social organisation and interaction that respond to social demands for new and better ways of resolving societal problems and satisfying social needs, offers a way for the public sector to respond to challenges that initially fail to provoke an adequate market response from the private sector.
Social innovations address a social demand or need (e.g. care for the elderly), contribute to addressing a societal challenge (ageing society) and, through their process dimension (e.g. the active engagement of the elderly; the provision of new services) they contribute to reshaping society in the direction of participation, empowerment and learning. This implies that social innovation requires significant changes in behaviour at many different levels.
Social innovation is a complex phenomenon for which the theoretical framework is still being developed – hence the existence of an empirical but fragmented approach to its implementation – and its growth in Europe is hampered by insufficient knowledge of the sector; limited support for grass roots, social enterprise and social entrepreneurship activities; the limited reach and poor diffusion of existing examples of ‘good practice’; and few opportunities for them to be scaled-up. Lack of adequate metrics and limited attempts to monitor and evaluate support measures and assess impacts also constrain their spread. The contexts in which social innovations are developed are also very different across European countries in terms of the welfare systems in operation and the relative roles of the state, the market and the family, which complicates the process of mutual learning and the spread of good practice.
Currently, many European public authorities at national, regional and local levels have instruments and policies in place to encourage public sector and social innovation. All have a role to play in raising Europe’s capacity to develop and adopt effective and innovative methods. Many initiatives and instruments are also already embedded in existing EU actions, ranging from activities supported in the Framework Programme to investments in social innovation by the European Social Fund (ESF), which supports institutional capacity building at all levels. In the current programming period, the ESF invests more than €2 billion in institutional capacity building; another €2 billion supports mutual learning between the Member States and transnational cooperation; and a further €1 billion is spent on innovative activities related to new forms of work organisation, better use of employees’ skills and resources, productivity improvement, new approaches to lifelong learning and new ways of combating unemployment through entrepreneurship. Overall, however, activity levels are sub-critical and most authorities involved in social innovation activities recognise the need for experimentation and ‘scaling-up’; for networking stakeholders and promoting new public-private partnerships; for developing common methodologies for measuring initiatives and impacts; for the creation of capital markets and appropriate regulations to attract investment; and for new infrastructures capable of supporting social innovation.
There is also a role for the EU to play in terms of coordination, as many social innovation activities and the societal challenges they address have a cross-border dimension. Social innovation requires multilevel governance and consistent regulatory frameworks, and the EU has a catalytic role to play in developing these. Good practice in some Member States can also inspire solutions in other European countries, and scope exists for the EU to support efforts aimed at developing a better understanding of the concept and practice of social innovation. There is scope, therefore, for a programme of research on all aspects of social innovation and the development of a European Public Sector Innovation Scoreboard to benchmark public sector innovation and facilitate processes of mutual learning.


A rationale for action, accompanying the Europe 2020 Flagship Initiative Innovation Union, COM(2010) 546

Empowering people, driving change

A report by BEPA, the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, starts (p. 7) by saying that:

Social innovations are innovations that are social in both their ends and their means. Specifically, we define social innovations as new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively) and create new social relationships or collaborations. They are innovations that are not only good for society but also enhance society's capacity to act.

It goes on to develop a working definition articulated around three "approaches" (p. 31):

Social innovation relates to the development of new forms of social organisation and interactions to respond to social issues (the process dimension). It aims at addressing (the outcome dimension):
  • Social demands that are traditionally not addressed by the market or existing institutions and are directed towards vulnerable groups in society. Approach 1
  • Societal challenges in which the boundary between 'social' and 'economic' blurs, and which are directed towards society as a whole. Approach 2
  • The need to reform society in the direction of a more participative arena where empowerment and learning are sources and outcomes of well-being. Approach 3

Source: Empowering people, driving change: Social innovation in the European Union, July 2010


The INNO-GRIPS innovation policy workshop no. 6, held on 25-26 March 2010, was entitled Social Innovation in Europe. Mobilising people and resources. It clarifies the evolution from previous exclusively competitiveness-linked definitions of innovation by defining social innovation as:

the application of new ideas, with the aim of meeting social needs, which involve new or transformed social relationships or practices. It is not fundamentally motivated by business interests, commercial opportunities, profits but can generate some. The induced behavioural change may be within existing organisations or involve new ones. The innovation may derive from any sector and may rely on various types of partnerships between these sectors.It may or may not require technological innovation, but may well be facilitated by new technologies.

PROGRESS Call for proposals

Call for proposal VP/2013/012 for "Social Policy Experimentations Supporting Social Investments" starts by describing social innovation as follows:

Social innovations give new or/and better answers to social problems that are often more efficient and sustainable than present solutions. These solutions (products, services or new process) bring more than just jobs, growth and competitiveness - they contribute with something to the society as a whole. Social innovation is about developing solutions to tackle social demands (e.g. eldercare, childcare, job opportunities and training) and societal challenges (e.g. ageing society, climate change, poverty and exclusion). Social innovations are not only answers to specific necessities, but they also aim towards the empowering of people, especially those who are deprived, through their active involvement in the innovative process. Social innovations are also about creating and improving social relations and models of governance by developing new forms of organization and interactions between public sector, civil society organizations, private enterprises and citizens to respond to social issues. ... Social investment relies on social policy innovations to provide solutions that produce results better than the existing solutions or the status quo. Social policy innovations can help to create efficiency gains in social policies and effectiveness in addressing societal challenges as well as to facilitate investment in human capital throughout the life course.

Some of these innovative solutions to social challenges remain successful on a small scale, but some of them have the potential to be replicated in other contexts or to contribute to a wider social change. Social policy experimentation is considered in this call as a tool to test the impact of a new policy or a new measure on a small scale with a view to up-scale it if its effectiveness has been demonstrated. As new social programs and policies always contain some uncertainty and risks, social experimentations offer to decision-makers valuable opportunities to base their decisions on objective results. Indeed, when properly designed and executed, social policy experimentation is a powerful methodology which permits to collect evidence about the real impact of an intervention.