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Social Innovations for social cohesion: 77 cases from 20 European cities

Part 1: concepts and methods

1.1. The understanding of social innovations

If one studies the present literature on conceptualizing and defining social innovations (SIs) one comes to the clue that SIs are basically not the property of a specific social and political orientation. In some attempts for definition, it is claimed that they have to stand for “improvement” (Phills 2008) and a better answer to basic needs, and for more satisfying social relations (Moulaert 2010), and their initiators will obviously claim this and assorted “good things”. While most analyses try to derive from the “social” in social innovations a widely consented positive meaning (see BEPA 2010 and Mulgan 2006), social innovations’ values, actions and outcomes will in fact always be a contested issue. By definition, innovations are different from given widespread practices. They may become a mainstream practice over time but this is not already so at the outset. They can be linked with a diversity of goals and take different meanings over time, depending on the wider political concept and institutional system wherein they become embedded (see e.g. Osborne and Brown 2011). Therefore, the (technically) same innovative instrument (e.g. case management) can work and be judged differently in different places and circumstances. The field of SIs and the attempts at defining them are open-ended. In the WILCO project we defined social innovations, products and processes alike, as:

  • ideas, turned into practical approaches;
  • new in the context where they appear;
  • attracting hopes for better coping strategies and solutions;
  • marked by a high degree of risk and uncertainty due inter alia to the specific context wherein they appear.

According to this working definition, social innovations are, in a significant way, new and disruptive towards the routines and structures prevailing in a given (welfare) system or local setting. Whether or not they can be seen as “better” (more effective / social / democratic) is a question of its own that can only be answered in retrospective.

Following these criteria there is still a broad field left for studying and selecting SIs. Our selection picked up, out of the broader stream of SIs—ranging from NPM-inspired concepts of public service reform to cultural alternative projects—, the kind of innovations in which ideas of bettering the conditions of local citizens (and especially of those threatened by various dimensions of exclusion) were claimed to be central not only by the initiators but also by the local key persons and actors that were interviewed.

As it turned out, the majority of such SIs were new service arrangements, making a difference in terms of organisational structures, processes and types of service offers; however, there were also innovations in terms of new interventions (new financial arrangements, tax/transfer measures, etc.). And our search for innovation in local welfare systems also concerned economic (e.g. funding arrangements) and political dimensions (e.g. new arrangements in decision-making and participation).

1.2. Methods to sort out local examples of innovations

It follows from our definition that an innovation is innovative in its specific context. So what matters is whether it is regarded as new in a particular city. It does not have to be path-breaking on a European or global scale. For example, family centres are well-known in the UK and an integral part of many other local welfare systems across Europe; however, in other places, e.g. Berlin, family-minded service hubs, addressing children and their parents, are a new thing. Since we looked as well at the dynamics of social innovations, we selected only those that had overcome the very inception stage. According to this criterion, every selected innovation should have existed for at least one year (since March 2011) in order to be scrutinized. This minimum period of existence was not agreed upon to filter unsuccessful innovations but to work with a sample of halfway realized cases providing enough material for our analysis. Thus, the SIs we looked at were about ideas or approaches that had been implemented in practice to some degree; therefore, each innovation picked up by our teams entailed a practical “project” that had been realised. As it turned out, this “project” could be an organisation or an organisational subunit with new services that clearly differed from what existed so far in the field, but it could also be a measure/intervention such as a new transfer, tax or resource arrangement.

However, as the compiled examples show, local social innovations can also take other forms. Innovations always have a background of orientating streams of values and thinking as well as associated practices that back and inspire them. Sometimes this takes the form of a clear-cut movement (e.g. to establish local foundations with social aims). Innovations may be represented by a local network rather than a single organisational unit; or they may show up as an experimental model and unit to be found in plural forms in the local setting (e.g. new family centres). Therefore, speaking about SIs can mean to refer to a large project, but also to a cluster of small, similar projects. In such a case, the task was to describe the whole cluster and zoom in on one or two of the small cases, to get a sense of the micro-dynamics. In case the innovation was part of a government program meant to promote, finance and regulate an innovative approach, only those innovations from wider national programs that could be seen as “local”—in the sense that there was a considerable degree of freedom to shape them in the local context—were picked up. Finally, since social innovations generally include both bottom-up and top-down elements, we chose projects with variations in the mix (i.e. both innovations that were more citizen-driven as well as others with a stronger government involvement, etc.) in order to get a good sense of the different dynamics.

For our selection criteria the political and economic dimensions of innovations and the new institutions they bring about were also important. There are innovations that focus on developing new forms of interest representation (as exemplified by the new local NGOs and lobbies featured in the cases of innovations we received); and there are innovations where the focus is on innovative ways of creating financial funds. These dimensions were central for the choice of examples of local innovations, especially for those that are about new service patterns. In these cases, the ways in which these innovations deal with power, authority and money are sketched.

As a mandatory requirement, in each city at least three and at most six innovations had to be featured and analysed by each team. The actual number of cases chosen in a city depended largely on the complexity of the respective cases. In fact, the more complex the innovations featured in the report, the smaller the number of innovations studied was. By “complex”, we refer here for example to innovations represented by a network or a program entailing diverse further micro-innovations (like e.g. many new approaches in neighbourhood and housing renewal).

Each team had to cover all the three policy fields (child care, employment and housing) and target groups (single mothers, youngsters and migrants) that we had agreed upon earlier when it came to make out of the criterion of exclusion/cohesion a practical and operational issue. For purposes of comparison, every innovation had to cover a specific field. However, we realised that in practice innovations cross-cut fields and address several groups at once. Therefore, as a general guideline, it was agreed that each research team had to make sure that all fields and groups were at least somehow covered in the selection of innovations. Finally, each team enjoyed freedom in making additional choices; this meant e.g. that those innovations held as central by local politicians, professionals and change agents interviewed did not necessarily have to be the obvious choice of the WILCO researchers. Sometimes, the local partners pointed at more projects (which they saw as new, important and socially useful) than it was possible to take up in the study. In its portray of an innovation, each team was requested to give the reasons why the respective cases had been chosen.

1.3. Mapping the context of selected innovations

Social innovations are rarely micro-events standing alone; much more frequently, they are associated with running streams of ideas and concepts. Consequently, each WILCO team was requested to write a few pages at the beginning of each city report to point at background streams of cultural, public and/or professional debates and streams of (re)orientation that were animating the respective innovation(s) in the three fields and/or in relation with the three target groups.

Since the changing structures and notions of the national welfare system and those of (each city’s) local system, together with the values that guide them, had already been part of the work accomplished in work package III of the WILCO project and were simultaneously studied in work package IV, it was recommended to look in WP V at streams of thinking and movements that were important incentives for and orientated the respective local innovations (like e.g. new ways of dealing with issues of participation and civic engagement; the debate on new types of neighbourhood revitalisation concepts and what they mean for the modernisation of housing stocks; or new concepts that enable services to reach out to migrant communities).

1.4. Guidelines for ways of presenting and analysing the innovations

Each feature of an innovation had to begin with a comprehensive description of what the selected example was all about, and of what was seen as the outstanding “innovative” trait in this particular case (against the given local and general background in the field).The description and analysis then were to focus on what was remarkable with respect to the selected case in terms of the approaches and instruments it had created and was operating with.

It was a key task of our analysis to deal with the question of what could be generalized from these innovations, their approaches and the tools and instruments developed by them—not only in the special local system within which an innovation was taking place, but as well at the level of an international European debate on local welfare systems, their institutions, rules, services, modes of governance and kinds of welfare mixes. Obviously, this task called for a fairly high degree of “abstractification”.

In terms of drawing conclusions for local welfare systems at large, several kinds of impacts can be envisaged in general, ranging from simply giving room for or basically accepting a similar project/concept in a different setting (e.g. getting towards a similar lobby organisation for migrants elsewhere—upscaling and diffusion) to questions concerning the degree to which an innovation represents some kind of message about an emerging new service and welfare logic that calls for changing the local welfare system to a larger extent (e.g. allowing for bundling contributions from different realms and sources in a personalised way for individual users—innovations as part of a comprehensive reform process) (BEPA 2010, 33). Taking all this into account, a central challenge was to obtain both a very concrete and sensitive picture of the individual innovation, and an intelligible way to draw “messages” out of it that were interesting also for colleagues working on the issue in other countries and settings. Thus, it was seen as important to keep an eye on discourses that inspire and legitimise SIs, seeing whether an innovation was inspired by examples from other regions or countries.

Moreover, it was suggested to analyse, discuss and portray each innovation with respect to the same basic points of interest. Given the enormous diversity of social innovations, we suggested only three “analysis grids”, which all teams should use when observing the selected innovations. Hence, the portray of each case of innovation is organised along three basic themes:

  • Conceptions and ways of addressing users;
  • Internal organisation and modes of working;
  • Interaction with the local welfare system.

(a) Conceptions and ways of addressing users

The focus here is on the kind of idea to be found about the users, groups concerned, etc. To what degree does one find here innovation in terms of (i) different conceptions of users, (ii) different types of services and (iii) different ways to provide a service (e.g. through an empowering approach, relying on users’ potentials rather than focusing mostly on their deficiencies)? Examples should include inter alia:

  • new ways of bridging the gap between the administrative world and “real life”, or between the social/public realm and the personal/private one;
  • pedagogical interventions operating partly with gratifications, sanctions or dialogues, etc.;
  • various capacity-building and empowering approaches and their respective instruments;
  • co-productive approaches that build on resources of the addressees;
  • “family-minded” approaches, that take into account the immediate setting of addressees/users;
  • personalisation of transfers and services; and
  • contractual relationships instead of rights.

(b) Internal organisation and modes of working

This part of the analysis was about questions that concern the organisational form chosen and the working culture to be found in innovative settings; the working culture may e.g. be innovative by the remarkable degree it is diverging from the working conditions and culture and the style of management found in local public administrations. New kinds of working units, marked by team work, flexible working contracts, etc. may mirror mainly the precarious status of innovative organisations, but it may entail as well elements for an innovative definition of what “public organisations” should look like and how they should organise themselves. Selected innovations in the working culture concerned inter alia:

  • the organisation of the work by team work / team-building;
  • the impact of social entrepreneurs and of modes of post-bureaucratic management (“fluid” and “entrepreneurial” forms);
  • working contracts that are outcome-/project-based;
  • working by time-limited “projects” and their sequences;
  • making publicity strategies and social marketing part of innovators’ agenda.

As our choice of examples demonstrates, various “hybrid” organisational forms of social innovations exist (e.g. “agencification”, entrepreneurial and community-based styles of operation in third sector organisations and in public organisations opening up to the third sector and community life).

(c) Interaction with the local welfare system

Quite often, new innovative instruments or services are not just an “app”, but have repercussions on the context and at the level of the political and administrative system; they entail a chance and challenge for the governance system as a whole, which has to react in one or another way (this is e.g. what happens when a neighbourhood revitalisation scheme entails the establishment of a round table). An innovation at one point of a system may then alter the relationships between actors and organisations in local welfare and urban development, the underlying values (see work package IV of the WILCO project), modes of decision-making and participation, as well modes of funding and financing. Given these interactions and modes of interplay, we specifically looked at:

  • innovative ways of institutionalising organisations/”project units” (e.g. on a multi-stakeholder basis);
  • accepting, acknowledging or even promoting new rules for funding and financing;
  • solutions that aim to meet the peculiarities of various groups by allowing for diversity—going beyond standard solutions with respect to the content of the services provided;
  • ways of governing “by projects” rather than only administrating open-ended tasks within a fixed framework defined by public administrative bodies;
  • creating a diversity of public-private partnerships of bodies and organisations within (local) society and business;
  • operating through inter-sectorial networks that are (semi-)formalised;
  • upgrading of a diversity of forms of deliberation (forums of participation), going beyond decision-making through elected officials and corporatist, “behind-closed-door” arrangements.

Finally, in conclusion, the portray of each selected innovation should give information on the following points:

  • Has the innovation grown and stabilised?
  • Has there been more acceptance and support in political and financial terms compared to the beginnings and mid-term situation?
  • Has there been diffusion in terms of learning processes in the political and administrative system? For example, has the system taken over instruments and practices from the innovation?

Beside the use and review of documents and programs (1.2), interviews were a key source for analysing social innovations. The number of interviews carried out was obviously linked to the number of innovations chosen. However, the minimum number of interviews carried out for each city report was nine. For a very small-scale single innovation, at least two interviews (one with a key-promoter, the other one with an experienced user) had to be carried out; for a complex innovation, clustering several different sub-parts, more interviews (also with partners in the local welfare department and/or the department for urban planning) had to be undertaken. Therewith, we followed the procedure of data collection that had been promised in the initial work package description.

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Content keywords

Keywords: Activation | Activation policies | Case management | Child care | Child education | Citizen initiatives | Citizenship | Civil society | Co-funding | Co-production | Collaboration | Community | Community development | Democracy | Deregulation | Development | Diffusion | Disability | Employment services | Empowerment | Enabling | Entrepreneurialism | Entrepreneurship | European Social Fund | Family caregivers | Family Centres | Family needs | Family-minded | Gentrification | Governance | Grassroots initiatives | Housing corporation | Housing policy | Incubator | Integration | Labour market | Labour market integration | Local context | Local governance | Local governments | Local initiatives | Local welfare | Local welfare system | Lone mothers | Lone parent support | Micro-credit | Municipality | Neighbourhood | Neighbourhood revitalisation | Network | Networking | Participation | Partnerships | Personalising support | Political administrative system | Precarious working conditions | Preschool education | Privatisation | Public administration | Regional government | Segregation | Single mothers | Social and solidarity-based economy (SSE) | Social capital | Social cohesion | Social economy | Social enterprise | Social entrepreneurship | Social housing | Social housing policies | Social inclusion | Social investment | Social media | Subsidiarity | Sustainability | Third sector organisations | Unemployment | Urban gardening | Urban renewal | User choice | Welfare governance | Welfare mixes | Workfare | Young mothers | Youth unemployment

Social Innovations for social cohesion: 77 cases from 20 European cities

Categories: Introduction

Social Innovations for social cohesion: 77 cases from 20 European cities