Social innovation takes off in Europe

‘Social innovation’ is sometimes used as a new label for CSR or social entrepreneurship. But in much of the world a distinctive new field is taking shape that cuts across the different sectors. One of the main drivers of this has been the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX). In the most recent development, the European Commission is supporting SIX and the Euclid Network (which links the chief executives of Europe’s big NGOs) to identify ten large-scale successful examples of social innovation. These will be showcased in an active programme of communication, the aim being to promote better understanding of social innovation.

Understanding apart, the other big gap is skills. Europe is also likely to play a major role in an ambitious programme to develop better skills and methods for social innovation, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian. The aim here is to develop a networked global innovation academy providing practical skills, such as how to use design tools, incubate ideas, finance new ventures, and engage public policy makers and commissioners in scaling up the best ideas.

Europe is taking a particularly interesting path, increasingly linking social innovation to science and technology, partly influenced by the recommendations of a business panel on EU innovation policy last year, which advocated shifting the EU’s very substantial funding for research and development towards societal challenges such as ageing and climate change.

Earlier this year, SIX was commissioned to prepare a social innovation strategy for the EU, covering the adaptation of investment funds, regional support and technology funding. Máire Geoghegan Quinn, the new commissioner for research, has committed to incorporating social innovation alongside programmes supporting such things as marine technology and nanotechnology, and there is enthusiastic talk about opening up R&D funding to civil society and new collaborations with foundations. The potential sums are large. The European Investment Bank is roughly twice the size of the World Bank. The EU’s latest research programme has a budget of €50 billion.

Launched two years ago by Julia Gillard, now Prime Minister of Australia, SIX has 1,000 organizational and individual members, which range from firms like Cisco and Macquarie to social ventures such as Hope in Korea and Fuping in China.

Geoff Mulgan is Director of the Young Foundation. Email

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