Commission puts faith in ‘social innovation’ to tackle exclusion

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The European Commission is encouraging civil society groups and so-called 'social entrepreneurs' to participate in a new EU-wide initiative to promote new approaches in the provision of public services.

"Social innovation is about meeting the unmet social needs and improving social outcomes," said José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, speaking last week (17 March) at the launch event of the 'Social Innovation Europe' initiative.

According to official figures, the so-called 'social economy' in Europe employs 11 million people, while the non-profit sector as a whole provides some 40 million jobs across the EU.

But the Commission president acknowledged that the concept of "social innovation" was not widely understood by the wider public. 

According to Barroso, social innovation is about "tapping into the creativity of charities, associations and social entrepreneurs to find new ways of meeting pressing social needs, which are not adequately met by the market or the public sector and are directed towards vulnerable groups in society".

One of the main aims of this new initiative is to develop an interactive online database that will enable all kinds of social actors to learn about different approaches to the delivery of public services that are being tried out in other countries.

It will provide information about funding opportunities and facilitate new relationships between civil society organisations (CSOs), governments, public sector institutions, social service providers and private companies to tackle social issues as Europe strives to lift itself out of the economic downturn.

The initiative is being led by the Social Innovation eXchange (SIX) – part of the Young Foundation, which is based in London. The chief executive of the Young Foundation is Geoff Mulgan, who previously worked in the UK government as a senior advisor to former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mulgan told EURACTIV that across Europe there is increasing recognition among policymakers of the importance of social innovation, and he predicted that areas of social services such as health, education and care would be major sources of job creation in the coming years.

"The social innovation initiative aims to catalyse action across Europe – linking the best innovators in all fields, and helping the EU institutions to modernise policies for investment, regional growth, R&D and social programmes so as to get more innovation impact for every euro spent," said Mulgan. 

Civil society groups remain cautious

Civil society organisations afforded a positive albiet cautious welcome to the launch of the new initiative. Speaking off the record, some told EURACTIV that they would have to wait and see how the initiative was being implemented and followed up before they could judge how useful it was.

The European Federation of National Organisations Working with Homeless People (FEANTSA) has been closely following social policy developments at EU level for more than 20 years, and is in favour of comparing different policy approaches based on their results.

FEANTSA policy officer Ruth Owen told EURACTIV that "there is real potential for this new focus on social innovation to help deliver on key priorities in the area of poverty and social exclusion, including homelessness". "This can best be achieved through evidence-based social innovation," she said.

"It is essential that there is an adequate focus on evaluation and evidence, in order to make social innovation credible within the EU framework and ensure maximum impact on key priorities. The European Commission must work together with stakeholders on key thematic areas to establish what are the best opportunities for social innovation," Owen added.

Social innovation 'more needed than ever'

Referring to the ongoing social impacts of the economic downturn, Commission President Barroso said "the crisis has only confirmed the necessity for change in the way we approach our social and economic challenges".

He insisted that the outcomes of the 'Social Innovation Europe' initiative must not be limited to interesting discussions and "nice papers", but should also include "concrete consequences in policymaking and policy outcomes".

The Commission, he said, is actively considering the idea of proposing a European statute for foundations that would contribute to meeting social needs.

László Andor, the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, spoke at the opening session of the launch event for the 'Social Innovation Europe' initiative. He said that social innovation is a theme that runs through most of the seven flagship initiatives being developed at EU level in the framework of the 'Europe 2020' Strategy.

Andor noted that the commission had already been supporting social innovation projects since 2000, using money from the EQUAL and PROGRESS programmes. He said that these projects had "created a solid knowledge base" across a wide range of topics including "inequalities and social exclusion, service innovation and social entrepreneurship" - among others.

"Social innovation is not only about finding alternative solutions to gaps in the market and public sector, but it is about finding the best ways to empower people - especially deprived groups - through their active involvement in the innovative process.  It is also about creating and improving social relations and models of governance through new forms of organization and interactions between public sector, civil society organization, private enterprises and citizens," said Andor.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, spoke at the closing session of the conference in Brussels. She said that Europe needs innovation "to flourish not just in our laboratories, factories and boardrooms, but also in our schools and community centres, our hospitals and care homes".

The Irish commissioner promised that the EU's 'Innovation Union' initiative will include support for  research on public sector and social innovation, using money from the 7th Framework Programme (FP7). "We will set up a Social Platform on Innovative Social Services which will allow the relevant stakeholders - researchers, policy makers and civil society - to collaborate on drawing up a European research agenda focusing on health, welfare and education services," she said.

Geoghegan-Quinn promised that by 2013, the Commission will "launch a large-scale mapping of social innovation in Europe, and develop indicators to measure the achievements of social innovation in different countries, regions and localities. We will pay special attention to monitoring and collecting data on the excellent social innovations that continue to spring up in Europe's cities and regions."

Klaus Niederländer, director of Cooperatives Europe, also welcomed the 'Social Innovation Europe' initiative, which he said "will put forward co-operatives as a key driver for change towards the sustainable Europe of tomorrow".

"Co-operatives are by their very nature at the forefront of innovation: instead of putting financial capital at the heart of their business, they put people, with their needs and ideas," he said.

"Co-operatives have been providing innovative solutions to people's needs for more than a century, and they have been showing an unprecedented resilience to the economic downturn which has been affecting the global economy in the last few years," he added.

Ruth Owen of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with Homeless People (FEANTSA) told EURACTIV: "There are risks as well as opportunities in the emerging social innovation framework. One risk is an overly fragmented approach with inadequate linkages to the targets and key priorities of the Europe 2020 strategy and its flagship initiatives."

"In the area of poverty and social exclusion, it is important that social innovation is best used to help make progress towards the headline target of lifting 20 million people out of poverty and to follow up the commitments of the European Platform Against Poverty, including the European Commission's commitment to identify methods and means to best continue the work it has started on homelessness," said FEANTSA's policy officer.

The European Foundation Centre (EFC) welcomed commitments made by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso to consider establishing a legal statute for European foundations that are active in more than one member state.

EFC Chief Executive Gerry Salole told EURACTIV: "A European Foundation Statute could be a new tool to promote social innovation in Europe and beyond. [It] will allow foundations and funders to develop their full potential in the internal market to address citizens' needs and well-being and sustainable development also in a cross-border context."

"Foundations have much to contribute, including multiple resources, expertise, flexibility and creativity but they need the appropriate legal tools to do so, particularly with a growing number of them engaging in cross-border activities," said Salole.

"A European Statute would enable simpler management, more efficient administration, and increased mobility and responsiveness, while facilitating the pooling of expertise and resources in those areas that require increased scaling-up of funds and help Europe to meet global challenges," he added.

In June 2010, EU leaders adopted the 'Europe 2020' strategy, which has the overall aim of creating jobs and promoting "smart, sustainable and inclusive growth".

In the framework of the strategy, the European Commission will implement seven flagship initiatives including the 'Innovation Union', presented in October 2010.

The main aims of the EU's 'Innovation Union' are:

  • To make Europe into a world-class science performer;
  • to remove obstacles to innovation (market fragmentation, etc.); and;
  • to encourage public bodies and private companies to work together, notably through Innovation Partnerships between the European institutions, national and regional authorities and business.
  • 24-25 March 2011: EU leaders to discuss implementation of 'Europe 2020' strategy at summit in Brussels.

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