The increasing interest in and relevance of social innovation in the European Union is reflected in the enormous volume of past and current research activities and projects being conducted in the European Union and beyond. Many national research and development programmes fund projects and research that focuses on topics related to social innovation. Are you actually familiar with where social innovation in European research stands?
On a European level, the topic is horizontally present across many of the funding programmes. So, in this article, we will focus on the research and development funding programme of the European Commission: Horizon2020 (H2020). Former (framework) programmes had previously funded projects in the field, but the number of projects has increased significantly under H2020.
‘Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020). By coupling research and innovation, Horizon 2020 is helping to achieve this with its emphasis on excellent science, industrial leadership and tackling societal challenges. The goal is to ensure Europe produces world-class science, removes barriers to innovation and makes it easier for the public and private sectors to work together in delivering innovation.’ (Source: European Commission)
A search using the term ‘social innovation’ across the funding programmes in place since 2003 returns over 226 projects reflecting social innovation in European research. Limiting the search to the current programme reveals 206 projects that include the term in their project title or summary.
Due to the sheer number of projects, selecting the most inspiring ones is extremely complicated, especially as all of them have the potential to be inspiring depending on the background, professional and personal traits of each person. As such, we have reduced the number by focusing on those projects funded under priorities which specifically and explicitly relate to social innovation, and thus have the topic at the core of their research. From the 86 remaining projects we then selected 8 that cover a wide range of themes and target groups, and a variety of approaches.
Education and social innovation in European research
Several projects have focused on the connection between social innovation and education, such as:
- Entrepreneurial skills for young social innovators in an open digital world (DOIT), which aims to deliver and disseminate a new approach to early entrepreneurship education within Europe and to nurturing the seeds of active social innovation in young pupils, namely an entrepreneurial mindset, know-how and skills. The project empowers primary and secondary school pupils (6–16 years), alongside educators, to apply open innovation methods, digital maker tools and collaboration skills to tackle societal problems. It will develop toolboxes for children as well as facilitators that provide complementary know-how and support. They are designed to provide the experience of being a social innovator in mobile and fixed child-friendly spaces.
- NEMESIS – ‘Novel Educational Model Enabling Social Innovation Skills’ brings together education and social innovation by combining innovative learning models, open technologies and participatory relations and processes. The objective is to foster entrepreneurial mindsets and creative thinking among primary and secondary students, allowing them to become the social innovators of tomorrow. It builds on a combination of innovative pedagogies and learning models, open technologies and participatory relations and processes.
Bringing together social innovation
A large number of the projects funded focus on bringing together case studies, research, policy and knowledge on social innovation, allowing the different stakeholders to learn from each other and cooperate. Parts of these projects are assisted by a specific funding instrument aimed at providing coordination and support to European policy (and funded projects), which is the case for the following three projects:
- Social Innovation Community (SIC) develops an enabling environment for social innovation that links actions across the whole field, creating a ‘network of networks’ of social innovation actors. It identifies, engages and connects actors including researchers, social innovators, citizens and policy-makers, as well as intermediaries, businesses, civil society organisations and public sector employees, thus deepening and strengthening existing networks, forging new connections between networks, and creating new links to actors and networks not yet included in the field of social innovation.
- Digital Social Innovation for Europe (DSI4EU) brings together social entrepreneurs, hackers, communities and academics working in key digital social innovation fields such as the makers movement, the collaborative economy, open democracy and digital rights, and the sharing of data, enabling them to collaborate on solving societal problems and scale their initiatives, focusing on open and distributed technologies and new, sustainable business models.
- Social Challenge Innovation Platform, SCHIP is creating an ecosystem and marketplace to match social challenges with innovative solutions, through supporting the co-development and execution by social innovators and SMEs of sustainable and market-oriented innovations with a clear social impact. It foresees financial support for practical and marketable solutions.
Specific-purpose social innovation research
Reflecting the extension of the social innovation field, some of the funded projects focus on a specific area or purpose within the domain, such as social investment or community resilience:
- Innovative Social Investment: Strengthening communities in Europe (InnoSI) focuses on the question of how to design robust social investment strategies which can deal with emerging socio-economic challenges and the aftershocks of the 2008 economic crisis. Its aim is to identify innovative approaches to social investment, ensuring special attention is paid to the legal and regulatory frameworks required for innovation in social welfare policy and the different approaches to funding social welfare policy, including potential roles for the third sector and private sector organisations.
- Collective Platform for Community Resilience and Social Innovation during Crises (COMRADES) aims to empower communities with intelligent socio-technical solutions to help them reconnect, respond to and recover from crisis situations. The open‐source, community resilience platform enables local (communities in crisis zones) and remote (digital activists and responders) individuals and communities to come together and share knowledge, to produce and access filtered and quality collective information, and to be connected with others based on emergency needs and offers.
Yet it is not only big projects that are funded under the programme; the SME instrument provides base funding for viability assessment through its phase 1 activities. One funded project in the field of social innovation worthy of mention is the Freebird Club organisational membership portal, which has developed an online ‘sharing economy-based’ portal for seniors, offering a new way of travelling, whereby members can travel and stay with each other in the context of a trusted social community of senior peers. The Freebird Club won the European Commission’s 2015 ‘European Social Innovation Competition’ (out of 1409 applicants) and has now received funding for the platform.
Social innovation research and the digital economy
All projects have in common the use of ICT-based platforms and tools to facilitate collaboration and cooperation across their target groups and stakeholders, allowing them to share and generate knowledge in the field of social innovation. It is clear that none of the funded projects would be able to realise the foreseen wide impact on their targets and on Europe’s policy without these tools. Even if social innovation in itself does not necessarily need these types of tools when it comes to initiatives and activities funded by H2020 (or, as a matter of fact, by any other European-wide funding programme), their use is key in delivering an impact beyond the local sphere.
Learn more at Social Innovation Academy
As such, EOLAS and Limitless, together with 3 other partners, agreed to the development of the current project, which aims to develop the first online Social Innovation Academy in Europe. The Social Innovation Academy will be the first fully online management training programme focusing exclusively on social innovation.
Why Social Innovation Academy? Social innovation is increasingly being perceived as the answer to the rising number of European societal challenges. While the European authorities, leading academics, policy experts, business people and activists agree that social innovation is the key to a better future for Europe and the world, it is extremely difficult for professionals to obtain high-quality training on what social innovation actually offers and, more importantly, how it can be done in practice. The Social Innovation Academy will aim to change this situation in Europe and beyond.
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