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Policy makers share key lessons on social innovation

December 18 2017

by Sarah Rach and Julia Wittmayer

Rather than having researchers formulate specific recommendations for policy makers – we invited 13 policy makers from local, national and supra-national governmental organizations to attend the TRANSIT final conference as ‘key listeners’.  As the name implies, their task was to listen carefully and to subsequently share their main insights. Interested in a short compilation thereof? Have a look at this short video. 

From the 2+ hours interview material, let us share their three key lessons.

1. We need boundary objects or intermediaries to bridge the (language) gap between different social innovators

Obviously social innovation involves many societal actors. Not only the state, market and academia but increasingly civil society and the community. Many different models have been developed to give these multi-actor processes a name or emphasize certain collaborations: the triple helix, quadriple helix, big society, energetic society, or what our TRANSIT researchers Flor Avelino and Julia Wittmayer call the multi-actor perspective and so forth. What the key listeners emphasized is that all these different actors have different realities. On the one hand, this is a good thing because it brings a range of perspectives, needs, energy and creativity to the table. On the other hand, it also puts forward a challenge: they speak different languages to refer to the same thing or use different means to reach the same goal. During the conference the key listeners learned about different initiatives and/or methods that aim to bridge such gaps and co-produce methods, artefacts, knowledge or collaborative processes. Relationships can change to have power more distributed among different actors. Examples mentioned were: citizen science, science shops, hackerspacesfablabs and participatory budgeting. These initiatives have the potential to have a bigger diversity of voices heard (in research, planning and production processes) and can empower citizens and communities. Another key listener heard about an example where marginalized groups were able to take control of their energy and resources. This initiative showed her tools and mechanisms of how power can be shifted which makes change concrete and tangible.    

2. We need to change our organizations to make collaboration between different societal actors work

This insight relates very much to the first one. As the first lesson already suggests, we cannot change the world on our own. At the moment a retreating welfare state is changing the level playing field in many countries. This means that all actors, not only the government but also academia and the market, in society reconfigure their position and change their internal organization to respond better to societal issues.

One of the policy makers recalls the need of social innovation within the government to make technological innovation successful. Social innovation then focuses on other types of management and human resource policy within the administration and co-creation with society (such as academia and civil society). At the same time this also means that academia needs to change to produce ‘better’/more actionable knowledge. As the example of science shops show this is a way for academia to respond better to societal needs. Their insights however need to be made more applicable for policy and practice to implement. The market needs to change to bring forward more innovative and relevant solutions, not only from a business perspective but mainly from a collective and societal perspective. This requires a fundamental re-organization on the level of business models, funding instruments, rules and legislations, etc.  Social innovations already innovate with other modes of internal organization. Ecovillage Bergen for example implemented sociocracy as a way for internal decision making. Basic income is another example that would fundamentally transform how our society is organized and according to some key listeners has a lot of potential. As such re-inventing how different actors in society relate to one another, like social innovations do, this can accelerate the transition towards more sustainable modes of society.   

3. We need to better tell the story that change is already here today, hot and happening

We are in the midst of it: so much is going on in our society where transformations already take place. The TRANSIT conference was a proof of that with 20 transnational networks demonstrating that alternative ways of doing and organizing for a more sustainable society are possible and are practiced in reality. The key listeners emphasized that what is needed is to showcase the best practices of social innovations better. As the first lesson already taught is, this is a cross-domain need. What is happening in society is being reflected upon by universities and researchers who have have insights about social innovation and how social innovation engages with processes of change. They can share their reflections on social innovations and societal change processes. However, sharing and presenting this knowledge needs to be done in a more applicable way to policy makers.

This exchange of experiences and learning from one another is to prevent us from reinventing wheels. Like was done during the conference. One of the key listeners emphasized that he finds especially the transnational aspect important in this shared learning. Not just neighboring countries face similar challenges (like the retreating welfare state in North-West European countries like the UK and the Netherlands) also in our globalized many challenges (and solutions) apply to different contexts.

Next to sharing and exchanging practices, big power is also in telling the stories and experiences from initiatives. This story telling can contribute to mainstreaming good and radical ideas. Different initiatives working on similar challenges add up and can make a change. For example participatory budgeting, basic income and time banks are social innovations that together form a ‘whole’ for a more equal society. These initiatives find their commonality in ideas about solidarity, targeting policy reform and all of them have been existing for decades. One of the key listeners first perceived them as emerging from the fringes but seeing their interconnectedness now sees their larger transformative potential. This working paper led by TRANSIT researcher Paul Weaver dives into the topic of an inclusive society for example. Communicating these examples more effectively can help mainstreaming their best practices.  

We would like to thank all who freed up their busy schedules to follow our invitation as key listeners: Femke Haccou, Gabriela Faggi, Ariel Gordon, Anne Nielsen, Susan Guerra, Tessa de Geus, Michele Lamanna, Claudia Göbel, Gregorz Drozd, Julien Woessner, Simon Bannister, Ilan Stoelinga, Radika Bynon and Jochem Cooiman. Another big thank goes to our DRIFT colleagues Sophie Buchel, Antonia Proka and Giorgia Silvestri for conducting the interviews and HIS colleague Sharon Welsh for editing the video. 

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