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Social innovation in local development

What is social innovation?

Has your local community started a new service, for example, delivering groceries to elderly people in their homes? That is likely something we would call a social innovation (SI). SI is a rather special kind of innovation. It is not simply a new way of doing something involving people, rather than technology. It is an innovation which is produced by a community or a group, and which then itself strengthens the communal capacity for further innovation. Put simply,

Social innovation is an innovation that is social in both its means and its end.

It can only be initiated through a social process, and therefore requires some level of community spirit and cohesion. However, in the process of achieving its aims it also builds, or strengthens, the capacity of the community to respond to future challenges. As such, SI can be seen as having both direct and indirect benefits and is one of the key drivers of local “bottom up” development processes. Activities that could be lablled SI  have been happening for years. The concept however  is much newer and is attracting particular attention now because of the great potential of SI to help meet growing needs within the Nordic social welfare system.

Why is the local dimension important?

Much of the literature relating to SI is based upon activities which have been observed in urban areas. These are a fertile seedbed for SI simply because the density of population and frequency of interaction provides many opportunities for new ideas to emerge. We know rather less about SI in rural and sparsely populated contexts. Here frequent interaction is maybe less likely among a widely scattered population. On the other hand, rural areas are traditionally associated with strong community networks, in contrast to anonymous urban life. Rural communities are usually rooted in particular places. Being part of that community is determined by where you live, work, shop, and participate in recreational activities. As a result the “local” dimension of these every-day events plays an important role in shaping the ties that are developed between community members. Such networks seem to be particularly important sources of SI. They are also strengthened and supported through the innovation process. This explains the emphasis in this project upon social innovation in local development.

What is the role of the public sector in social innovation?

There are two schools of thought regarding the role of the public sector in SI. Some writers see SI as a direct response to the failure of public policies – thus making them independent from the public sector by definition. Others see SI as hybrid phenomena, drawing different resources from public, private and third sectors. We argue that attitudes to public sector involvement are shaped by welfare regime contexts, and forms of local governance (centralised v localised) and thus are likely to vary between countries. In the Nordic context, closer relationships between municipalities and the local communities they serve, may mean that SIs are more often initiated by public sector actors, and that SIs are more likely to benefit from stronger public sector involvement.

What is the difference between social innovation and social entrepreneurship?

It is important to be clear that, just as entrepreneurship is not the same as innovation, social enterprise is not the same as social innovation. A social enterprise is a business that operates in a commercial environment but with social, rather than market driven, goals. Social innovation is a process which leads to novel, community-produced, solutions to social problems. Social innovation may lead to the creation of a social enterprise but it doesn’t have to.  

What can municipalities do to foster social innovation

Based on the literature there are three approaches through which the preconditions for social innovation can be nurtured: 

  1. Creating oportunities and processes through which local social networks can develop viable alternative solutions to the issues they face.
  2. Transfer of good practice between rural areas which face similar issues but which are geographically remote from each other.
  3. A general emphasis upon “reconnection” of remote rural communities with external sources of ideas, support, and funding.

These activities are all already very much part of the EU policy concept of Community Led Local Development (CLLD) and Local Action Groups (Leader) .