10 years ago the main European institutions, like national governments, were sceptical of social innovation. It was seen as something marginal about NGOs, and small community projects. Innovation was good and vast amounts of money were being channelled into more traditional innovation, science and technology. But the big lobbies – big business, big science and universities– dominated debate in Brussels, and social projects and enterprises struggled to be heard.
Since then, a few individuals both inside and outside the system have helped to change that, opening up a new debate and space (this piece summarises some of the changes). A crucial role was played in the late 2000s by BEPA, under the authority of the President of the Commission. The result is that 10 years on, the seeds they sowed are beginning to bear fruit. There are now dozens of social innovation centres and labs, incubators and accelerators across Europe. There’s been a big expansion of social investment funds, and although only a small minority focus on innovation, these provide a new route to help innovations grow to scale. Governments are backing more systematic social experimentation – with Finland in the lead. Several countries have developed serious social innovation strategies – with Slovenia the latest. Universities have built up research centres, from Dortmund to Glasgow and Barcelona. The EU’s Social Innovation Prize has attracted thousands of imaginative projects in successive rounds. Digital social innovation has taken off, and around 2000 organisations are now linked by DSI Europe, tapping into the energies of maker movements, open data and others. The Commission has added social innovation into its big funding programmes like Horizon 2020, in tandem with some national agencies, like SITRA and Vinnova.