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Adopting, adapting, transferring and translating – an inspirational afternoon with the WILCO project in Brussels

Author: Zainab Reza
Published Date: 2 August 2012

By Louise Pulford

Yesterday, I was actively engaged in one of the most interesting social innovation discussions I have been part of for some time. Why was I so engaged? Partly it was because the audience expanded beyond the familiar faces of the SIX network. Partly it was because discussion was focussed on innovation, rather than just social entrepreneurship. Partly, I was interested that the conversation took on innovation barriers beyond the usual concerns about money. But also, I was interested because this discussion was rooted in practical exampleswhich are currently working well in their own context and are subject to constant evaluation to ensure quality is high

The seminar was the mid-term of the WILCO project , whichdeserves more recognition, particularly beyond the European research community. It is run bya very solid consortium coordinated by Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and the EMES European Research Network, and includes a number of Universities across Europe.

WILCO (Welfare innovations at the local level in favour of cohesion) is an EU-funded project aiming to examine, through cross-national comparative research, how local welfare systems favour social cohesion. The project’s focus on the missing link between innovations at the local level and their successful transfer and implementation to other settings, makes it extremely relevant to the Social Innovation Europe initiative, andthe global aims of SIX.

The effort to strengthen social cohesion and lower social inequalitiesare among Europe’s main policy challenges. Local welfare systems are at the forefront of the struggle to address these challenges – and they are far from winning. While the statistics show some positive signs, the overall picture still shows sharp, and sometimes rising inequalities, a loss of social cohesion and failing policies of integration.

But, contrary to what is sometimes thought, a lack of bottom-up innovation is not the issue in itself. European cities are teeming with new ideas, initiated by citizens, professionals and policymakers. The problem is, rather, that innovations taking place are not effectively disseminated, because they are not sufficiently understood; many innovations are not picked up, because their relevance is not recognised. Alternatively, innovations can often fail after they are introduced into a new social context, because they are not suitable to the different conditions in another city, in another country.

Working in 10 countries – with both one large and one smaller city in each, the WILCO project is looking into this missing link between innovations at the local level and their successful transfer and implementation in other settings.

For me, the most interesting thing about this project is the way it has been designed – it is itself innovative and forward looking, unlike many other research projects. Communication and disseminationare valued and have been invested in heavily, and the users are not only involved in the design of the project, but also in the dissemination strategy. In fact 4 out of 5 of the overarching goals of the project highlight stakeholders, community engagement and key players. These are not people doing research in isolation,writing long reports in order to get paid by the European Commission. The WILCO project team really want their research to be used and their message to get out.

The consortium and stakeholders present at the mid-term seminar also have a forward-looking and fresh view/focus on social innovation. As the ecosystem of international social innovation events continues to grow, fresh and relevant perspectives are becoming more important than even to keep the field of social innovation vital and effective

The WILCO project focusses on how to exchange, and on ‘learning how to adopt and adapt’. The message—as was proven by the rich discussion—was thatit’s not that there aren’t enough social innovations in Europe – you can go to any city, town or community across Europe and you will find a selection of actions which are innovative in the context of that place. The problem is knowing about them, and then exchanging this knowledge with each other. This has become clear in the WILCO research. When innovating, they have found,it means you need to break normal routines andthere is often a power struggle. Social innovation treads on toes, and always requires ‘effective bricolage’, as WILCO Coordinator Taco Brandsen calls it. It’s a hybrid combination of new and old and therefore needs effective translators as much as it needs initiators. For social innovations to spread, we need people who have mastered bricolage.

For all of us working on, or supporting social innovation projects in Europe, I think we can learn from theWILCO technique. We shouldfirstly find the examples, then really understand the projects, understand the needs of local innovators, and how they can achieve change, then act as translators.

Another interesting and refreshing aspect ofthis discussion was the lack of focus on finance. The examples were often bottom up initiativeswith proven success rates. One of my favourites was the Bookstore Project in Amsterdam, where artists are filling vacant houses paying low rent, but in return, transforming the community by simply being active members of the community – it's better described in this video. Marsha Ru, who lives at the Bookstore Project and who presented the example was also, for me, a fantastic example of a bottom up innovator – unaware of the effects she could have and not influenced by the political agency she has; just doing the project because she thinks it is valuable, whilst being useful for her.

This example sparked a discussion with example after example of great social innovations – concrete projects that work from the pan-European project tackling homelessness in train stations which ANSA is coordinating, to examples from EMUDE of collaborative consumption and participatory budgeting in communities in Nantes. More than 20 fantastic projects were named in a 40 minute discussion – it was inspirational.

I was asked to talk about which elements of social innovation could be transferred across countries, given the different contexts, cultures and traditions. I offered some models and ways of working from SIX network – ‘Studio Schools’ for example, take manydifferent elements from across the world andare good examples of bricolage. Processes, methods, tools and ways of doing social innovation can also be shared and transferred across borders – the Australians are currently looking at the model of Denmark’s Mindlab for Australia; finance tools like Social Impact Bonds are being replicated and adapted all over the world. But I think we will all have a lot to learn about the best ways to transfer solutions and projects from WILCO. And the first step to knowing about the work of WILCO is connecting the project better to SIE. It's time to stop building new networks and take stock of what already exists; then better connect with each other. Networks and effective systems for learning and exchange lie at the heart of this issue, and until we can get that right, we won't know about the incredible and invaluable work of projects like WILCO.