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SIX Global Council Ideas for the Future: Role of the Public Sector in the Field of Social Innovation

Author: Gotzon Bernaola Ariño
SIX Global Council
Published Date: 21 August 2015

This article was written by Gotzon Bernaola Ariño (Social Innovation Program Manager, Innobasque-Basque Social Innovation) and is part of our SIX Global Council series on Ideas for the Future. 


Governments across the world, from local governments to international institutions have gained an increasing interest in both tapping into the potential of social innovation to solve social challenges, and also in supporting the field; whether through funds, technology support or creating favourable policy environments. But is it a true love story?

The crush

Governments have always been and still remain a source of different types of social innovation: the social welfare system, universal access to healthcare and education are good examples of this. However, it is also true that there are many government structures that often hamper innovation and risk-taking. Even today, standardised one-way responses are being promoted for problems that are increasingly complex and multidimensional. Innovation is restricted, and this could be due to budget constraints or due to government structures themselves which limit their capacity to innovate beyond providing services.

In light of this situation, social innovation is regarded as an opportunity for governments to tackle social challenges of increasing complexity by using a transversal approach where innovative solutions are more than just technology. Furthermore, the gap between governments and the general public continues to grow (mistrust, actual or perceived lack of efficiency, etc.) and social innovation is seen as a model which enables new types of relationships to be built between civil society and institutions, thereby creating shared public value.

However, it is not an exaggeration to say that social innovation has come into the life of our institutions at the perfect time. Given that government structures and social demands are more and more complex and interrelated, social innovation is based on a participatory democratic system and civic engagement; it tries to create a real approach to public demands which focuses on tapping into the innovation skills of a region or community. It has been love at first sight.

But is this enough to build a long-term relationship?

We keep on associating innovation with a brilliant idea or an unparalleled discovery. However, we fail to realise that innovation - and social innovation in particular - does not usually come from innovative primary factors, but that it instead comes from combinations that are radically different from those we normally find in familiar factors. Consumer groups, city allotments, time banks and online petition platforms demonstrate this well. Governments can play a major role in fostering these new interactions and making them easier, and it is an area which is indeed being worked on.

Both regional and national governments are promoting measures for generating new ideas and unlikely connections. At this moment in time, when we don't know "which one is the good idea", "how to change things" or even if "we're able to agree what the problem is", governments are promoting forums for discussion, interaction… shared social learning with the clear goal of creating new perspectives, new alliances and new solutions. This could be through competitions, funding initiatives or other means. A significant amount of work is also being ploughed into selecting and developing experimental projects by setting up networks and platforms that allow for scaling processes.

But is this enough? Are we approaching the development of social innovation in a structured and comprehensive way? In the heat of this blossoming courtship, we sometimes forget that social innovation is about strategy. This means that governments must take the lead as necessary to define what the real strategic challenges are and how we should approach them (who with, using which resources, how to obtain them and where to apply them), as well as defining their role in the social and economic development of the country.

  • Support programmes are being designed and there is funding, but does it feature in R&D&I systems? Is social innovation being promoted as rigorously and with as much support as other types of innovation?
  • Do we understand that social innovation needs to be rooted in regional development and in building up power relationships? Is social innovation being included in strategies for competitiveness?

Unfortunately, for too many of these questions, the answer continues to be "NO". Sometimes love is not enough. 

A real commitment: Buying the engagement ring

Very few public institutions are working in a strategic and coordinated way to promote a real R&D&I system that incorporates social innovation into both its objectives and methods.

It is not enough to promote programmes that support and fund social innovation with greater or lesser amounts of money, or are more or less appropriate, if they always remain isolated from the system of competitiveness and regional development. Social innovation has to be incorporated into innovation programmes that are already in place to "break" them from the inside. We can't keep trying to create policies for competitiveness without promoting social cohesion. Or vice versa. Because every policy must be useful to society and create public value. Because social innovation is the best tool for institutions to start making policies again. Real policies. Policies in capital letters. Now is the time to commit.