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Social Innovation Policy in the European Union

The next speaker at Challenge Social Innovation is Agnès Hubert, representing the European Commission. There is a growing interest in questions of social innovation at the European Union, with important preliminary work already underway; a new report has already been published, and further social innovation actions are underway. This brings together a wealth of important but still very fragmented initiatives in the past; social innovation is now becoming a frontline issue for decision-makers at the Commission.

Two major EU policy documents, framing the next ten years, address social innovation: this includes the 2020 directive, promoting inter alia innovation and the reduction of poverty. Social innovation is also embedded throughout a variety of other initiatives contained in the directive. Additionally, the EU budget also features significant financial support for social innovation initiatives; member states will need to identify themes for social innovation, and the Commission will facilitate capacity building in this field. Further, the EU Horizon 2020 research programme will also address social innovation research, and aims to unleash innovation across a number of crucial growth areas.

How may those resources best be used to drive change, then? This is not just a societal question: social innovation is a concept which transcends the societal level. Short and long-term demands are growing, and imaginative responses must be found to growing constraints; social innovation provides important opportunities here. This covers three categories: the social (grassroots innovation to address demands not addressed by the market); the societal (the broader level which addresses societal challenges and where boundaries between the social and the economic are blurred); and the systemic (which relates to broader changes in attitudes, values, and processes right across all societal institutions).

Systemic change may be necessary to address especially the bigger, more crucial challenges Europe faces (including poverty, finance, climate change, etc.) – social innovation in this area it must empower people and drive change. Why and how must people be empowered (with knowledge and governance) in this way? The development of the Red Cross, or the establishment of universal suffrage, provide good historical examples here – the social innovators behind these developments had to work hard to go against the prevailing attitudes of their time.

Crisis events can help drive such change – but we cannot rely on crises to do this work for us. If the dominant paradigm is hegemonic (or economic? may have misheard that), social change cannot develop. Small initiatives cannot effect systemic change.

Recent EU research reviewing the main trends ahead and anticipating major destructive challenges (which will soon be published in full) points to a number of likely developments. The three major, global challenges it anticipates are characterised as green, inclusive, and smart challenges: the green challenge is about more effective ways of using natural resources; the inclusive challenge points to the need to anticipate and address societal challenges; and the smart challenge relates to the need for more effective and transparent government and governance.

From this, we may outline a blueprint for further work: to align policy with citizen mobility, citizen empowerment, and (citizen participation, I think). These challenges are not simply about social innovation, but bring us back to the heart of its agenda; social innovation must drive policy reform. Commitments, attention, and resources to social innovation by the Commission provide the elements for an agenda for change; this includes networking, funding, experimentation, research, and changes to governance. Social innovation should become a respected activity – and debates on indicators of growth beyond GDP provide one opportunity to effect the systemic changes which must be anticipated, and must draw on a broad range of disciplinary inputs.