• August 7, 2017

Mark AndersonBy Mark Anderson Director of Glasgow Caledonian University’s Europe Office and Board Member of ‘The Melting Pot’

Scotland is experiencing something of a Renaissance in social innovation at the moment, with programmes such as the Social Innovation Fund demonstrating a firm commitment from the Government to support SI activities. Let’s face it, ever since Robert Owen and the establishment of New Lanark, Scotland has led the way in the field – even before the term social innovation actually existed.

But it is important to recognise that Social Innovation is a worldwide phenomenon. The Mayor of Seoul, Park Won Soon studied social innovation in the UK and has made it the core of all his metropolitan policies. The Basque country in Spain has developed a network of social innovation spaces throughout the region. And it’s not just in the so-called developed countries. Social Innovation initiatives are springing up all over the world, in South Africa, the Americas and the Far East.

In Europe in particular it has been adopted as a primary policy tool. In July 2016, Carlos Moedas, European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation said ‘European support for social innovation now, is an investment in the global economy of tomorrow.’ The EC has already made significant investments in both research and practical projects which aim to support and enable social innovation. Recent and current social innovation research projects under FP7 and Horizon 2020 programmes have also demonstrated the importance of SI in socioeconomic policies (see Tepise , CRESSI , WILCO and EFESIIS projects) while programmes such as Interreg have invested in social innovation between the regions of Europe.

One of the problems with governments’ espoused interest in social innovation is that politics can be very fickle and transitory.  Obama’s flagship Office for Social Innovation and Civil Participation has ceased to exist under the Trump administration while the UK’s government’s Advisor to the Prime Minister on Social Innovation has also fallen into the background.

Of course, one of the great advantages of social innovation is precisely that it is not beholden to governments but rather born from the communities themselves. It directly responds to the concerns of people in order to seek out an effective solution instead of exploiting their fears for political gains. Nevertheless, working in the field, you can sometimes feel isolated and in need of support, which is why it is so important to broaden your horizons and seek out new networks that may be beyond your local community. I firmly believe that one of the great facilitators to help make this happen can be found within universities.

Working within the higher education sector it is certainly the case that there has been an exponential increase in interest in the field of social innovation. Sonal Shah, former director of Obama’s now defunct Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation claimed that ‘Universities can help solve the world’s problems through Social Innovation.’ It is a bold challenge and one to which universities are beginning to respond. Universities enjoy a unique position within the social innovation ecosystem. They are able to offer real added value to their communities through the exploitation of their tacit and codified knowledge, capacity building, mentoring and training. They can make available specialised equipment, spaces for networking, hot-desking or more formal incubation facilities. They have selection and evaluation expertise and the networks to support lobbying etc. Above all, they can provide robust evaluations of the effectiveness of SI and help to provide an understanding of what can accelerate and scale-up SI, beyond the anecdotal, through benchmarking. Most importantly, of course, they can form an intermediary between the often subversive nature of grass-root actions and the glacial responses of the system.  But another role universities can play is to help develop international networks.

At Glasgow Caledonian University we have been carrying out a number of projects that specifically support social innovation in different parts of the world – in Latin America, South East Asia and South Africa. These projects revolve around the establishment of special Social Innovation Support Units within the universities to help improve and develop their communities and create international networks to support them. I am currently in Latin America on a tour of partner institutions in Panama, Colombia, Brazil and Chile. In each institution we have seen a very different model for supporting social innovation – some of them are focussed on how technology can be harnessed to help social innovation, while others are more centred around training their students to work directly with communities to devise social projects. What all of them have in common is a deep commitment to helping drive social change. In November we are carrying out a similar exercise in Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand. Of course none of these projects would be possible without funding – in this case European funding (but I won’t go into that topic right now!) – to help create and develop the networks. We also count on some excellent partners, in particular the Social Innovation Exchange , based in London but with a membership of over 6,000 social innovators from around the world.

It is all too easy to become so involved in local challenges that we forget that social innovation is a global phenomenon. I would urge everyone to take the time to see what else is going on around the world either by going to the SIX website or by engaging with some of our projects overseas (http://www.lasin-eu.org) and (http://www.seasin-eu.org/home/). Alternatively, you can write to me directly [email protected].

You never know what you might discover!

Glasgow Caledonian University