Part 3: Conclusive remarks: From the potentials of social innovations to the ways public policies deal with them today
To “do more with less”—this is the briefest, and probably the most honest reason why the European Commission puts so much hope in the promotion of social innovations. In times of banking crisis and austerity there are widespread calls for a further slimming down of welfare benefits and services, and more especially of those parts of the latter that can be seen as consumptive and protective rather than investive and productive (expenses for social protection, elderly care, etc.). Innovatory welfare arrangements and services, as they will be introduced in this compilation, are conceived as possibly the most effective and efficient remedies for today’s social challenges. They can be seen as a kind of so far underrated resource and sometimes as a last resort in situations of financial emergencies and failing welfare policies.
However, one of the central messages of our reading of the case studies on local social innovations is that they are the opposite of quick-fix-solutions; using their full potential requires nothing less than a combination of “the deep strategies of chess masters with the quick tactics of acrobats” (Cels et al. 2012, 11). Social innovations’ life-cycles (processes of emergence, stabilization and scaling up) are very conditional and are not available simply at the press of a button. Instead, welfare politics and social innovations have to be thought together and analyzed concerning potentials for mutual learning.
In this vein, four perspectives may nurture and stimulate further thinking about how to move from just using innovations towards learning as well from them. First, it is helpful to perceive the history of welfare and the welfare state as a history of social innovations taken up or rejected, marginalized or mainstreamed. When it comes to welfare provision, many movements and organisations have always played an important role in inventing and creating welfare arrangements of their own—mutuals in the field of social security, cooperatives as early “social enterprises”, voluntary associations bringing up and running all kind of services,… Secondly, it is crucial to rethink how innovation and diversity can get combined with reliability and equality. In order to achieve both, a balance has to be found between a guaranteed level of protection and openness for the changes brought about by welfare innovations, and between standardized and uniform regulations and claims on rights and spaces for trying out something new and different. Thirdly, narrowing the current gap between the changes brought about by social innovations and those change resulting from welfare reforms calls for policies that are less about imposing change and more about preparing it through programs, pilot schemes and forms of evaluation that allow for failing and failing better, thus enabling learning in social and policy terms on all sides. Nudging change and preparing reform through time-limited programs that take up an innovation is a line of tradition in policy making that has steadily won more influence in the last decade. And fourthly, thinking about the tensions between given policies of “welfare reform” and policies for “upscaling” social innovations is indispensable. When it comes to the future of welfare, one should think more about the net-balance of the parallel processes of down-building big and basic welfare and protection systems and of supporting small-scale innovations in services and local networks.