Olivier De Schutter, who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, argues that social innovation should be the key priority of the next European legislature. But what exactly is social innovation? How can it contribute to overcoming the challenges of the beginning of the 21st century?

A 2010 report commissioned by the European Commission defines social innovations as “innovations that are social in both their ends and their means”, and as “new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words, innovations “that are not only good for society but also enhance society’s capacity to act”.

Concretely, the concept can be applied to many new practices ranging from the functional economy to the sharing economy, to new forms of helping each other out like “transition groups” “ethical purchasing groups” and other types of community initiatives. Olivier De Schutter’s report gives a hearty overview of current literature on these initiatives that are booming both in Europe and abroad. 

A chance to give new legitimacy to European integration

The Special Rapporteur reckons that social innovation could be the way to reconciling the European Union’s short, medium and long term agendas. Right now, that agenda is consumed with the economic and financial crisis. The urgency of the short term has meant that the challenges of the medium and long term – reestablishing the European social model and the ecological transition to name two, have been put on the back burner. Social policy is currently focused more on deficit reduction than on social protection as such. The ecological transition is more about green growth, without really knowing whether or not it will ensure a long term reduction of the global ecological footprint.

Therefore, how can we be sure that the long term will not be sacrificed in the long term? Without going into the details of the debate on the economic and financial crisis, the report points out that the crisis is first and foremost a “governance crisis”. European member states have become so interdependent that they have no choice but to integrate further. But how? Some would like to see a giant leap towards federalism, but they are underestimating the wealth gap between member states.  That gap has grown significantly over the course of the various waves of enlargement: the wealth gap between European Union member states went from 1:3 to 1:20, then to 1:18 with the accessions of Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. Under these circumstances, a boost in solidarity could entail significant transfers.

What’s more, pro-federalists underestimate the extent of Euroscepticism, which is in turn fed by faulty reasoning. As it were, those who are against more European integration are against it based on the erroneous conclusion that power sharing between the E.U. and the member states is a zero sum game, as if boosting federalism in Europe would automatically mean weakening the powers of the member states and undermine sovereign democracy. That would essentially be like simultaneously denying how integrated the member states actually are, and the fact that by bolstering integration the member states are actually made stronger than they each would be individually. The central thesis of the report is that it is possible to debunk this fundamentally Eurosceptic thesis by coming up with potential forms of government that would concurrently strengthen community action in Europe and national and local democracy. So, if the European Union can show its ability to support democratic experiments and innovation, then it will be able to establish the legitimacy that it lacks. That is very much in line with the thinking of the philosopher Etienne Balibar, who believes that the European Institutions should be even more democratic than the single member states. This also is in the same thrust of the ideal of the very first European federalists[1].

Reconciling the short, medium and long term

The shift in focus to the short term has also delayed the debate on the future of social protection in Europe, even if budget cuts have, to a certain extent, had the effect of motivating job seekers to take more individual responsibility. Yet, the challenges society faces are not merely budgetary in nature: there are also issues such as demographic change, to name just one. The report provides a very interesting overview of the main points of debate on “social investment”.

The ecological transition is another potential victim of the focus on the short term. Currently, the European Union’s 2020 strategy emphasizes increased efficiency of resources, yet invests precious little in spurring behavioral change. Moreover, policy for behavioral change (information and awareness raising campaigns, labels etc.) is more based on the stick (fear of punishment) than on the carrot (that those behavioral changes are actually in line with the individuals own value system). The potential of social innovation, which might just very well jibe with theses values, is currently under-utilized in European programs.

How can we reconcile the short, medium and long term agendas? How can we avoid their implicit hierarchization? The report offers three potential solutions: 1. Developing indicators as an alternative to GDP, and specifically one that measures increases and decreases in “social capital” and “well-being”; 2. Factoring in equality as a measure of sustainability (a structural element of the economic crisis was an increase in inequality); 3. Social innovation, as a means to link the short term response to the economic crisis to the long term vision of a low carbon society.

Various types of social innovation

Olivier De Schutter’s report gives a good overview of ways to empower social actors: “The empowerment of social actors, by supporting the innovations they initiate, is both a means and an end. It creates the space allowing for the search for solutions that, in specific contexts, can accelerate the transition to sustainable societies, and it favors collective learning, as local experiments in one place can inspire other, similar experiments elsewhere. But its democratising effects are also beneficial in their own right: as people are encouraged to reshape the environment they inhabit, they move from being passive purchasers of goods and services (as consumers) and of political programmes (as voters), to becoming co-designers of solutions. This goes beyond both consumer activism and participatory democracy: as social innovators, individuals and communities are redefined as co-authors of the solutions that concerns them, in the specific contexts in which they operate”.

Notably, social innovation can take the form of a functional economy and/or a sharing economy. The overwhelming success of bike sharing programs is a case in point of the first: upwards of 500 cities around the world, in 49 countries have rolled out a bike sharing program, and between 2011 and 2013, in Europe, they have literally doubled.

Economically, innovation goes much further than the sale of a service replacing the sale of a good.  The sharing economy, the philosophy “open source” is a part of a larger movement to “deprivitizing” access to goods and services in which the difference between a consumer and a producer is becoming blurred.

Social innovation could also transform the way in which the public services, the third sector and private companies interact with the communities in which they operate. One example, is the policy implemented by Environment Minister Evelyne Hytebroeck to support the “Sustainable neighborhood” projects in Brussels. The state’s role is no longer to merely provide services, but to empower citizens to implement local solutions themselves, without completely removing the role of the state as a producer of community services that would otherwise not be provided by the market or that would be, but often in a way that is unfair.

Potential for Social Transformation

Perhaps more importantly however, is social innovation’s ability to transform social relations. On this subject, De Schutter refers us to the Convivialist Manifesto that places social aspects at the core of sustainable development: only through redefining our notion of what is social and our relationship to nature will we be able to achieve sustainability. As Wilkinson and Pickett maintain, “a weakening of community life and an increase in consumerism are linked.” Social innovation goes beyond using own technology or strengthening energy efficiency, which would be made possible through group buying of renewables, for example. It could also lead to greater lifestyle changes and notably, changes in the place of productive work in society. Last, but certainly not least, social innovation holds much potential for developing democracy within Europe. Europe could recuperate a part of the legitimacy that it has been lost through activist communities, if it is able to show its ability to promote social innovation, which is essentially democratic and participatory innovation all the while blurring the traditional lines between legitimacy of output (legitimacy through results) and legitimacy of input (legitimacy through representation and participation).

A new mission for the European Union

It is therefore within the interest of the European Union to reposition itself as a promoter of social innovation and to develop the tools needed to spread those practices. The BEPA study of 2010 proposes various tools that could be used for this purpose.[2] The De Schutter report puts forth the following tentative conclusions: 1. Traditional institutional boundaries should be broken down so that stakeholders who do not generally work together can; 2. For participatory action to work, it is crucial to build the capacity of those involved, for solutions to correspond to the values of the beneficiaries, and for the beneficiaries to implement them; 3. Several different issues should be addressed simultaneously; 4. Innovation must be evaluated and more specifically the ability to replicate it must be assessed; 5. The innovation must be able to be used in a context other than the one in which it was developed.

Finally, the report calls on European decision makers to implement as quickly as possible concrete provisions to support future E.U. programs (budget, expertise, networking). We can only hope that they will follow the prescriptions of a paper that can boast the achievement of eloquently reframing the economic, social, ecological and democratic dimensions of the current economic crisis, while offering a way to give new legitimacy to the European project.



[1] Etienne Balibar What European democracy? A response to Jürgen Habermas (2012)

[2]Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA). 2010. Empowering People, Driving Change: Social Innovation in the European Union. European Commission. Publications Office of the European Union. Luxembourg. (Published in 2011).

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