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Lessons from the examples

This project examined a diverse range of examples of social innovation in local development, with a particular focus on how these initiatives address demographic challenges. Although the cases, and the contexts they are drawn from, vary in many ways, there are some broad lessons that can be gleaned from the project as a whole. Based on these, we have put together some ‘tips’ aimed at different groups of people who work with, or would like to work with, social innovation.  

Tips for community based social innovators:

  • Focus your energy and be patient. Particularly in small communities, it will likely be impossible to address every challenge right from the start. Think about all the things you would like to achieve and prioritise based on what is most important and what can realistically be achieved with the human and financial resources you have.
  • Passionate people matter! It is difficult to find an example of a successful social innovation that is not driven by committed people who are willing to dedicate their time and expertise. Make the most of the skills and experience within your community and try to make space for a range of people to get involved.
  • Don’t be afraid to share your vision and your success. Local, and even national, media can be useful in drawing attention to your work. This attention can open up new avenues for funding and collaboration. It might also lead to opportunities to upscale the initiative.  


Tips for public sector innovators:

  • Involve the end-users in the innovation process. Involving rural people in the development of new solutions is a great way of making sure services meet the needs of communities and gives local inhabitants the chance to influence the development in their area. The participatory process can also improve relations between local residents and the municipal authority.
  • Embrace cooperation and reinvent traditional roles. Changing roles and increasing cooperation between public, private and community actors is central to promoting social innovation in local development. The development of such partnerships is complex, time consuming and also relatively new in the Nordic context so make sure to allocate adequate resources.
  • Be brave, take risks and experiment with new ideas. Innovation in the public sector requires experimentation, creativity and new ways of thinking. Courage and commitment from leadership and politicians is also vital, as risks may be perceived as high compared to ‘business as usual’ solutions. Creating a ‘culture of innovation’ within the municipality requires an attitude shift but also knowledge and skill building. In reality, the current situation in some rural areas means that not daring to do things differently could be a much greater risk in the long-term.
  • Reinvent old processes like public procurement. Innovative public procurement is a promising tool in the rural context. It can result in solutions that better meet end-users’ needs, are more efficient from a cost-benefit perspective, and increase the number and diversity of actors involved in services provision.


Tips relating to external support and funding:

  • Build flexible support and funding structures. Funding and other support structures work best when they are flexible enough to respond to specific needs in different local contexts. For example, local development funds that can be used for a range of purposes, rather than being earmarked only for particular types of activities.
  • Be creative about how you source/provide funding. Financial support can come in all kinds of forms. In-kind contributions from the public or private sectors can make a huge difference (e.g. exemptions from property taxes on a community facility, donation of goods). Don’t be afraid to ask and think outside the box in terms of what support might look like.
  • Create links between different types of actors. In almost all cases, inputs of voluntary labour and public sector resources were much more important than commercial involvement. Despite this, when links were made between innovators and private sector actors, the results were extremely positive. Activities that connect social innovators with potential private funders would be a great way to encourage more of this.
  • Provide opportunities for skill-development and knowledge exchange. Attracting project funding requires specific competencies. Public actors can support community-led initiatives by providing such expertise and sharing data or hosting skill development workshops for community organisations. There is also scope to simplify application processes to make funding more accessible.


Broad learnings about social innovation in local development:

  • The process is just as important as the outcome. When communities work together to address shared needs they develop valuable skills and social networks that strengthen the community as a whole. This increases innovation capacity and the potential for future action. Coming together to address local challenges also contributes to an increased a sense of belonging to the local area, a factor that has the potential to address the problem of out-migration.
  • Social innovation has a unique “local development” component in rural areas. In urban settings social innovations often target a specific group or problem. In rural settings, it is just as common to find initiatives that take a holistic approach, working to improve the community for all who live within it.
  • Democratic ownership models provide a strong foundation for long-term success. Community ownership of assets, companies or foundations through a range of legal forms has great potential in rural areas. These structures may provide opportunities for income generation as well as creating formal structures for resident participation in local decision-making processes.
  • Success is heavily reliant on key individuals. While, of course, the presence of passionate individuals to drive social innovation efforts is positive, the weight of their efforts in ensuring success also presents challenges. Individuals can become burnt out or, in the case of aging communities, their capacity may be reduced. There is a need for improved understanding of how different approaches to social innovation can encourage sharing of responsibility and involvement of a broad range of community members of different ages.   
  • Improved monitoring and evaluation is necessary. The cases analysed suggest that follow-up on the results, and/or ongoing performance, of initiatives is limited. Better utilisation of existing monitoring and evaluation methods would increase the visibility of social innovation initiatives and their impact which could in turn make it easier to attract clients and/or funding.