Encountering "social innovation" in Seville - and pondering what it could really become

Metropol Parasol, Seville (Photo: PK)

Metropol Parasol, Seville (Photo: PK)

By Pat Kane

We were delighted to be invited to the Social Innovation Community’s celebration event in Seville this week. As A/UK’s co-initiator, I was asked to shake up perceptions in an opening keynote conversation with Erika Widegren, from Re-Imagine Europe.

I immediately realised that I was walking into a field that has only in recent years come to recognise itself - which large grants from the European Commission for the concept undoubtedly help happen (this event was dwelling on the end of its current funding round).

Strange, also, to step into such a profoundly European space (where the continent’s languages and representatives mingle relaxedly, sharing concepts and jargon), from out of the turmoil of Brexit Britain. A place where the language of “vassal” or “slave” state is thrown around, as if a century of democracy and constitutionalism hadn’t actually occured.


Yet as I explored with Erika at the beginning, it’s not as if angry (or perhaps, fear-and-insecurity driven) populism wasn’t simmering, emergent or even dominant in many of the delegates’ home countries. Many civil society representatives are running around trying to imagine what could be the best response to this. And the recent IPPC report, with its temporal urgency of a decade or two to get to zero-carbon economies, also hovered over the room in Seville.

Erika was convinced, and is putting Re-imagine Europa to this end, that the need was to construct a new “big narrative” for European (and for that matter, British) citizens. How can the baby of a functioning (rather than destructive) market society not be thrown out with the bathwater (representing neoliberalism’s generation of harsh inequalities)?

Yet this reminded me of our critique of the otherwise estimable George Monbiot’s “politics of belonging”. Who wants to be the subject of anyone’s carefully-crafted “big narrative”, standing there and waiting to be seduced? Indeed, as soon as you know you’re being “narrated”, you can easily go to the networks and find your own framing of events. Isn’t resistance and cynicism to the “big narrative” somewhat inevitable?

I wondered if social innovation had its own, under-acknowledged “big narrative”? As Eddy Adams of Metropak pointed out in the final plenary, social innovation began its journey at a historical moment (the mid to late 90s) when it was assumed that most of the old ideological battles had concluded. As someone who was alive and kicking in the era of New Labour, the Third Way and Fukyuama’s “The End of History”, I remember the debates (and the sanguinity).

The question was often asked then: Why shouldn’t the “social” - the domain of answering human need, and maintaining human connection - be as “innovative” as the commercial private sector, or even draw inspiration from their methods?

One core SIC member was at pains to point out to me the difference between “social enterprise” and “social innovation” - the former much more about “heroic individuals”, the latter much about about “systems”.

Yet in SIC’s “Lisbon” manifesto declaration - reproduced below, and intended as their message to their EC funders - I was particularly interested in the last phrase:

  • Innovation should improve quality of life for all and tackle societal challenges

  • Openness, democratisation and inclusivity should be at the heart of innovation

  • Social innovation should be used to improve public services, but never simply to justify cuts or leave citizens worse off

Did the last phrase imply that social innovation HAS sometimes been used to “justify cuts or leave citizens worse off”? The obvious instance this brings to mind in the British context is David Cameron’s “Big Society” episode. This tried to riff on Thatcher’s old phrase, saying “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state”.

The Conservatives encouraged a wave of social entrepreneurs (or should we call them social innovators?) with projects that combined technology and business practice - but who often ran roughshod over existing and dense networks of volunteers and charities.

After a decade of post-Crash austerity, it’s perhaps understandable that social innovators might want to distance themselves from any discourse that preached “doing more (and innovatively) with less”, as social injury and pain increases.

Yet as I mentioned many times at the event, the role of ingenuity and imagination at the community level has arguably never been more urgent.

Even if we think of three major future trends - automation compelling an upheaval in human work; climate crisis compelling a speedy transition to zero-carbon economies; the increased movement of people northwards, faced with a destabilsing planet… All of them point to a need for an increased sense of confidence, and concrete empowerment, of street-level citizens.

We must think profoundly, but quickly, about the kinds of rich experience and tangible benefits that should come from being an effective citizen, worker and player in Britain and Europe. Otherwise Luddism, hedonism or racism - or an infernal combination of all three - are understandable responses to major trends of change. And waves, or seeds, of these are already appearing.

I wanted to suggest a frame for all the tens of thousands of experiments in living and answering needs (which is the best of social innovation) as “a massive tool box” - something that resilient, confident communities can draw from, to handle and benefit from major trends.

Yet the ways in which such a tool box would be built, presented and offered turned out to be key. In a post-event seminar, it was interesting to discover that when commissions, governments or municipalities ask and pay for social innovation work, the production of a “tool-kit” is often a key outcome.

But the sense I got was that this often was an act of lip-service to public engagement (or its most inert and banal manifestation). How many citizens really used these “took-kits”? How much of this dropped down into everyday practice in communities?

The question of urgency came up again and again. You could regard the radical municipalism of En Comu (and the Restless Cities movement), for example, as a form of “social innovation”.

Yet they have an impetus to create “commons” of resources - whether of land/public space, or software - in the city of Barcelona. And they emphasise the feminisation of public activities. Is a restless city like this - and there are many - a challenge to the loose and pragmatic reach of social innovation, up to the present?

Does being generally interested in the “social economy”, where inputs are diverse and pragmatic (see this for a representative paper) really encompass the anarchist and libertarian ambitions of the blockchain revolutionaries? Their ambition is to create an alternative system to existing structures of power and money - and not necessarily seek fruitful partnerships with business or government.

(Indeed the “A”-word is being embraced, as a philosophy that at least matches the culture of autonomy that drives the most vital social enterprise - see Ed Whitelaw’s column here, on how traditional anarchist thought helps communities “own their change”).

There are also possible bridges here between the digital self-determinists and social innovation. Take Michel Bauwens notion of the possibility of a “partner state” that might enable and support peer-to-peer enterprises. Also see Rob Hopkins’s tale of how Transition Towns activity in Liege, Belgium, redefined the governing ambitions of the municipality there.

Good questions from the Scalings project

The social innovation community has a very strong relationship to academic research - and it was a delight to engage with Sebastian Pfotenhauer from Munich, on how communities might have a voice or say over megatechnolgies like AI, robotics or urban energy, in his Scalings project.

Overall, the event has sparked us to consider what the traditions and practices of social innovation can bring to our project of superpowered localism, the reimagining and revitalisation of citizens, and consequently new forms of politics. We will undoubtedly be “raiding the tool-box” over the next few years.