Guide to Social Innovation in Europe

DG Regional and Urban Policy (European Commission)

Social innovation is in the mouths of many today, at policy level and on the ground. It is not new as such: people have always tried to find new solutions for pressing social needs. But a number of factors have spurred its development recently.

There is, of course, a link with the current crisis and the severe employment and social consequences it has for many of Europe’s citizens. On top of that, the ageing of Europe’s population, fierce global competition and climate change became burning societal challenges. The sustainability and adequacy of Europe’s health and social security systems as well as social policies in general is at stake. This means we need to have a fresh look at social, health and employment policies, but also at education, training and skills development, business support, industrial policy, urban development, etc., to ensure socially and environmentally sustainable growth, jobs and quality of life in Europe.

Part of the current attractiveness of social innovation comes from the fact that it can serve as an umbrella concept for inventing and incubating solutions to all these challenges in a creative and positive way. And this is much needed in Europe today.

Social media have brought about fast changes in how people communicate with each other, but also in how they relate to the public sphere. Citizens and groups can act more quickly and directly, in a participative way. This is also a part of the explanation of why social innovation is gaining speed. Today, there is no definite consensus about the term ‘social innovation’. There are a range of definitions and interpretations around, in which linguistic nuances and different social, economic, cultural and administrative traditions play a role. For our context, we define social innovations as innovations that are both social in their ends and in their means, remaining open to the territorial, cultural, etc. variations it might take. So, the social is both in the how, the process, and in the why, the social and societal goals you want to reach.

Social innovation is present in a whole range of policy initiatives of the European Commission: the European platform against poverty and social exclusion, the Innovation Union, the Social Business Initiative, the Employment and Social Investment packages, the Digital Agenda, the new industrial policy, the Innovation Partnership for Active and Healthy Ageing, and Cohesion Policy.

Many social innovation projects received already Structural Fund support. For 2014-2020, social innovation has been explicitly integrated in the Structural Funds Regulations, offering further possibilities to Member States and regions to invest in social innovation both through the ERDF and the ESF. We hope this guide will offer inspiration to make it happen in practice.

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