ESSI Meet & Greet: The road to Social Innovation

By Benedetta Buccolini

The first ESSI Meet & Greet event provided insights about what to do to foster social innovation and how to do it.

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, ESSI’s membership is steadily growing also beyond Europe. A recent member survey showed that individual members are based all over the world and work on social innovation in private companies, NGOs, research and education institute. In doing so, they touch many sectors of society including urban development, digital social innovation, mobility, energy and environment.

Experimenting with new ways to connect its members, ESSI organized its first “ESSI Meet & Greet” Session in October this year – a lively crowd of about 20 members joined to discuss and share the latest insights about three focal topics: social innovation in education, social innovation and sustainability, and assessment of social innovation. Here, I would like to share my main insights from these discussions about the field of social innovation and future opportunities for ESSI.

In the first place, social innovation is a complex, hybrid and context specific phenomenon and this complicates its definition and assessment. Indeed, the definition and assessment criteria of social innovation differ from country to country or between contexts as there is (still) a lack of a shared understanding of what it is and its impact on all the other domains. For instance, in Europe, as compared to other parts of the world, social innovation seems to be much more related to questions related to the environment. Also, the conceptualization of social innovation changes according to the domains to which it is related, such as technology, politics, or education.

The discussion pitched by Dr Anna Butzin from IAT (Institute of Work and Technology) regarding the relationship between social innovation and sustainability provided interesting insights about the complexity around the phenomenon. Indeed, despite its focus on ‘the social’, there are other factors contributing to social innovation. When a community self-organizes for the production and selling of energy for instance, social, economic, and technological factors interrelate.

Because of this, there is a clear need to maximize the synergies and coordination among different sectors. For instance, the application of innovative technologies in education or in the resolution of environmental issues might facilitate the emergence of social innovation. In the same way the adaptation of the legal framework to technological innovation could avoid situations where bureaucracy limits the emergence of innovative sustainable practices. So, the coordination among sectors would contribute to the transition towards more sustainable systems, communities and innovation processes, facilitating the achievement of SDGs.

The discussion about the relationship between the education system and social innovation provided some virtuous examples. Dr. Isabel Roessler from the CHE (Center for Higher Education) explained the result of the WISIH project, carried out at CHE, which explored the emergence of social innovation in higher education institutes with a focus on nursing sciences, occupational and business psychology. The development of “social robots” at the University of Applied Sciences in Dresden provides an example. Social robots are innovative technologies carrying out social tasks which means that they can have conversations, asking questions and comforting people. In this case, one can clearly see the interaction among technological, societal and educational factors in the emergence of social innovation.

However, Dr. Judith Terstriep, also from IAT, stressed the need for the development of criteria which facilitate the assessment and formalization of social innovation. She provided an approach for multi-phase and dimensional assessment of social innovation, which does not limit the measurement to results, but also takes into account external factors such as the context, resources and the dimension at which social innovation takes place. This means to recognize which actors can be involved, which resources are needed and the contexts that can be more favorable to social innovation. A clear framework for the assessment of social innovation could facilitate the coordination among different sectors, encourage the allocation of funds and would increase attention on social innovation as a more human-centered innovation system.

In doing this, it is important to understand ESSI’s potential. ESSI could trigger processes of mutual learning and knowledge exchange, easing the way to a shared and common conceptualization of social innovation. Also, it could represent a platform for supporting and advocating for social innovation at the global level.

So, what can be done to strengthen the network and foster ESSI’s action?

Members suggested the relevance of networking and recruiting activities within and beyond the existing network. On top of that, workshop participants suggested to establish working groups focusing on specific topics or on specific events, such as the organization of webinars and summer schools. An important role is again given to education, it was suggested to organize a school for young researchers and PhD seminars, and provide opportunities for internships for young students. Such activities can strengthen and expand the ESSI network but will also require a stronger communication strategy which can create and stimulate fruitful and multi-disciplinary collaborations. ESSI, as SI in general, needs a continuous exchange of knowledge and practice among people, disciplines, countries and continents.