Social innovation will be showcased at the next World Economic Forum in Davos, during which world leaders, together with business leaders and NGOs, will discuss innovative solutions to tackle the economic downturn, as well as addressing social reform and climate change.
Social innovation covers a wide range of new models, from childcare to web-based social networks, and from the delivery of healthcare at home to new ways of encouraging people to use sustainable means of transport.
In Brussels, the upcoming Davos debate was discussed during a workshop organised by the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, an internal Commission political think-tank.
"The financial and economic crisis makes creativity and innovation in general, and social innovation in particular, even more important to foster sustainable growth, secure jobs and boost competitiveness," said European Commission President José Manuel Barroso.
Thérèse de Liedekerke, BusinessEurope's managing director, noted that European social systems were developed in very different demographic, economic, social, technological and even ecological circumstances. She said social innovation is key to embracing new challenges and responding to new economic and social needs. She also called for social policy to transcend sectoral divides.
'Social innovators' hit the mainstream
For years, social innovation and entrepreneurship have been the domain of a handful of companies that seek success by doing good. Recently, social entrepreneurs have entered the mainstream, earning a reputation for being able to deliver, especially since Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, a micro-finance powerhouse, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Last year, Klaus Schwab, the legendary founder of the World Economic Forum, organised the first annual summit of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.
"They know that the best way to predict the future is to create it, and the best way to build momentum - and attract funding and other resources - is to develop and communicate a clear vision of how things might be different," according Pamela Hartigan, co-author along with John Elkington of a book entitled 'The Power of Unreasonable People', introducing a new generation of social and environmental entrepreneurs.
"These entrepreneurs see a bigger picture, sometimes mulling it over for decades. For them, Winston Churchill's adage that the further you can see back, the further you can see forward holds true," Hartigan was reported as saying recently.
Twenty-seven social innovators will participate as experts with unique perspectives in discussions at the next World Economic Forum, from 28 January to 1 February. They are expected to develop ideas and responses to the financial crisis and global social challenges such as urbanisation, global health and climate change. They have also been invited to participate in private discussions with key industry groups, and those involved with initiatives on education, climate change and energy poverty, among others.
Unions, social NGOs warn against quick fix
Barroso has repeatedly underlined the importance of social innovation in finding responses to the changing economy. The Commission has announced its intention to support social innovation through various EU programmes, in particular structural funds, and announced it will encourage the creation of networks for further reflection and the exchange of good practice.
Despite Barroso's enthusiasm, unions and social NGOs expressed reservations. "Social innovation isn't about putting icing on the cake, it's about making a better cake. If the Commission wants to promote it, it should review and reinforce its existing processes, like the Open Method of Coordination, the European Social Fund or the PROGRESS programme, rather than creating separate processes," said Roshan di Puppo, director of the Platform of European Social NGOs.
"There should be funds earmarked in the European Social Fund for social inclusion and social innovation to follow-up on the fantastic legacy of the EQUAL programme. The EU should ensure that this money is accessible to NGOs and take the lead on how this money should be spent," di Puppo added.
Along similar lines, Maria Helena Andre, deputy secretary general of the European Trade Unions Confederation (ETUC), noted that social innovation had to be first of all clearly defined and placed in the context of the present economic social crisis. "Social innovation cannot substitute existing social policies. The most important question today is how we can strengthen the social policies in order to tackle major challenges, namely the consequences of the economic crisis," Andre said.