Faced with a growing number of social challenges, the EU has done a lot to put social innovation on the policy agenda. However, it is still far from clear what that agenda actually is, or how member states are interpreting it.

For this reason, the EU-funded ITSSOIN project has performed an extensive analysis of social innovation policies across nine (current and former) member countries, including Italy, the UK, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Spain. One thing is crystal-clear: The hopes put into social innovation are very high. The desired effects range from achieving higher levels of solidarity and social cohesion to pushing national innovation systems more generally. Unfortunately, the ways in which this is supposed to happen are less clear.

To begin with, the prominence of social innovation in national policies differs greatly across countries. The EU and its communication on social innovation are used as a beacon by the governments of some countries such as Spain or Sweden, while in others social innovation policies are rather detached from the EU agenda, such as in France or the UK. Therefore, at present, we are far from a harmonised European policy approach.

At the same time, there are diverse coordination mechanisms in place to steer social innovation policies across countries. Some, like Germany, France or Spain, have a rather focused approach, where the Ministries of Economy, Labour or Social Affairs assume policy leadership. In the Netherlands, Denmark or the UK, meanwhile, the policy authority is more dispersed. While a broad foundation serves to embed social innovation policies more widely, such an approach may also lead to policy confusion, hesitance and inconsistent or weak support for social innovation.

Even in the relatively more focused countries, we are seeing calls for greater coordination. An expert panel from the German Hightech-Forum, for example, recently proposed the establishment of a supra-ministry national contact point for social innovation.

Policy coordination is the more important given that we have found that social innovation defies the typical classification of national innovation regimes. Research on Varieties of Capitalism suggests that national innovation strategies will differ depending on whether economies are more ‘liberal’ or more ‘coordinated’. But our typology of national approaches to stimulating and supporting social innovation did not result in a matching pattern.

This suggests that policymakers’ line of thinking about social innovation is not in line with how they think about commercial innovation. This adds complexity to the comparative study of social innovation policies and requires new ways of framing and analysing those policies.

Finally, and most importantly, our analysis revealed that in documents relating to national social innovation policies there is a lack of direction as to who is meant to ‘produce’ social innovation. In other words: ‘Who are the actors of social innovation and how can we support them?’ This remains a largely unanswered question. The link between social innovation and nonprofit or civil society organisations, for example, was relatively strong in Denmark, moderate in Germany and weak in Italy.

This is despite the fact that in Social Innovation: Comparative Perspectives we identify nonprofit and civil society actors as key players across countries, in particular at the initial stages of the innovation. The recent ‘Us Versus the Virus’ (WirVersusVirus) Hackathon of the German government—the greatest event of its kind in history, with over 26,000 active participants—was an impressive demonstration of the power that lies in civil society organising.

What we also expect from the research published in the book, however, is that as hackathon ideas consolidate and grow, more resourceful actors from government and business will start to play a more important role. One of the key insights we generated is that social innovation needs to be seen as a process rather than an outcome, and this therefore requires careful knowledge about how actor coalitions form and change over time.

Based on this insight and the current state of social innovation policies, there are a number of issues that policymakers should take to heart. In particular, given the potential contributions of social innovation to the sustainable development goals, policymakers should strive to:

  1. Establish more policy focus and coordination of social innovation policies via national contact points or task forces to prevent severe redundancies of efforts, coordinative disorders, overlapping competencies, and the imperfect allocation of human and financial resources.
  2. Promote more exchange on social innovation policies across countries to move towards a harmonised European approach, which would ease the setup of cross-national actor coalitions and the transfer of best practices.
  3. Gain a better understanding of the actors and process of social innovation to provide relevant policy support that results in favourable framework conditions and fosters the emergence of social innovation ecosystems.
  4. Advance knowledge of whether and how processes of social innovation translate into improved social outcomes, which is key to embedding social innovation policies into the wider fields of welfare, industrial or sustainability strategies.

A good frame of reference is the new ‘Mission-oriented Innovation in the EU’ agenda initiated by Carlos Moedas, former European Commissioner of Research, Science and Innovation, and Economics Professor Mariana Mazzucato. However, social innovation also comes with two particular complexities that we are not used to when thinking about commercially driven innovation.

First, social innovation cuts across sectors, industries and policy fields and therefore requires the brokering of unusual actor coalitions. This may necessitate policy innovation, where social innovation policies are shaped jointly rather than driven by a particular ministry or policy authority.

Second, like social entrepreneurship or impact investing, social innovation is particularly context dependent. So while striving for a unified approach, social innovation policies need to be adapted to national, often even local circumstances, which requires a clear and concerted strategy across policy levels.

I hope this post provides useful and actionable prompts on how to improve the shape and direction of social innovation policies in Europe. The Social Innovation Academy is a community, in which my suggestions can be critically discussed and developed further.

Remark: The results of ITSSOIN’s analysis of European social innovation policies that underlie this post have recently been published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly

Gorgi holds a PhD from Oxford University (Kellogg College). He is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Social Investment (CSI) at the University of Heidelberg and his research focuses on social finance, impact, entrepreneurship and innovation. The book ‘Social Innovation – Comparative Perspectives’ [link to open access publication: https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781315158020], which he wrote and edited, won the Best Book 2019 Award of the Public and Nonprofit Division of the Academy of Management (AOM).

Gorgi can be found on Twitter @gorgikrlev

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