Interview with Agnès Hubert: How has social innovation changed in Europe?

Louise Pulford, Director of SIX, interviewed Agnès Hubert, adviser in the Bureau of European Policy Advisers and author of the influential report ‘Empowering people, driving change: Social innovation in the European Union’ first published in 2010. Agnès has been instrumental within the Commission for championing and recognising the importance of social innovation as a pillar of European policy. The 2010 report later informed EU policy and the allocation of resources, with €919 million eventually being earmarked specifically for social innovation.

Louise interviewed Agnès to hear how social innovation has changed in the past four years since the publication of the Driving Change report and her plans for the future. This interview was conducted in May 2014; weeks before Ms Hubert leaves the European Commission to further pursue her research career.

It’s a period of change right now within the Commission, particularly in relation to social innovation. Can you tell us more about how social innovation has changed in the past four years?

I am currently writing an update of the BEPA report from 2010 which is specifically aimed at keeping track of the changes which have occurred in the last 4 years. Although social innovation was already part of the agenda as shown by small but successful programmes like “equal” and “leader” , and by the working group report on ‘Reinventing Europe through Innovation’ (which was chaired by Diogo Vasconcelos), a decisive boost came with the workshop we organised in 2009 José Manuel Barroso met with leading thinkers, civil society actors, policymakers and leading social innovators and organisations who shared their ideas and ambitions on how to implement tangible social innovation initiatives. After the workshop, the President asked the BEPA to write a report (“Empowering people, Driving change”) to identify how the Commission could answer some of the key obstacles that had been highlighted by those on the ground. This would enable us to see exactly what Europe could do to better support social innovation. As a result, there has been an amazing mobilisation of officials within the Commission as well as external experts, who are determined to support social innovation.

In the last four years, a lot has been happening. Since 2009, Social innovation has become increasingly recognised; It has been promoted not only as a way of answering the urgent social needs brought about by the crisis but also as an innovative solution to societal issues which triggers more structural changes thus improving economic efficiency whilst increasing citizens’ well-being in a dynamic society. The crisis has proven to be fertile ground for innovative solutions that answer questions that administrations and experts have found difficult to cope with. Amongst the innovations of the last five years, we have seen in particular the prevalence and development of ecosystems which encourage a high level of interaction between a variety of actors from finance, ngos, corporations, administrations, etc… This has led to a number of private and public initiatives put in place to create ecosystems – building, nurturing, financing and building the capacity of structures that better utilise the potential of society. I-propeller/OKSIGEN in Belgium is a good example of work in progress in this field.

As social innovation is a transformative process, the Commission has, in the last five years, continuously promoted and developed it through a variety of policy frameworks including in the core of EU competences: the single market. The Social Business Initiative, developed within Commissioner Barnier’s portfolio includes improving the legal and regulatory framework for social business. This is a new terrain at European level. Various other services have contributed to create capacity and resources for social businesses, to develop research and to enhance the status of social innovation within EC mainstream policies. Social innovation is now featured heavily within the wider framework of Europe 2020 and in the programmes of the new EU framework budget for the next seven years. By way of example, we now have a programme (The EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation) which has a budget of €919 million specifically dedicated to social innovation. This is considerable progress which demonstrates that more funds are now available for social innovators. Although public money is one element of promoting social innovation, it is not everything. There is also the need to attract more private investment. The EC has just published a communication on crowdfunding, specifically related to how the EC can regulate crowdfunding to build investors and donnors’ trust at a European level. Additionally, in order to develop a more favourable legal framework to better support social innovation , we are currently conducting a large mapping exercise on existing legal frameworks within member states. We also continue to listen and conduct consultations to ensure that those on the ground are getting the support they need. A new expert group called GECES (Groupe d’Experts de la Commission sur l’Entreprenariat Social) is an excellent sounding board (??) to inform and guide policy.

What will your new report feature?

This new report will map out all the new programmes and initiatives from the past five years. It will be a helpful resource for policymakers as well as those working on the ground. So many exciting things are happening in social innovation in the EU that it can be difficult to decipher how all these different projects come together. Thus an exhaustive inventory was necessary. The report will also recall the political, social and economic context within which it has developed as well as opening up on new research findings and perspectives for the future.

What are the best policies to develop social innovation?

There are two types of policies in relation to social innovation: those which help to enable social innovation initiatives by either developing tools or abolishing barriers and those that use social innovation as a tool to better develop other policy objectives. This said, the two most important issues we are working on at EU level are on the one hand, the finance and measuring of social innovation and on the other hand, how to make the most innovative use of the new digital tools (from the internet to big data) to respond to social and societal needs On both issues, a lot of interesting projects are ongoing as you will be able to read in the BEPA report mark 2

If you were in charge, how would you organise the Commission to better develop social innovation?

If I were in charge, I would task one Commissioner with the Social Innovation portfolio. Alternatively, I would create a directorate in the secretariat general or within BEPA with a mandate to coordinate initiatives and develop new thinking on social innovation and other such policies which enhance the engagement of citizens into social, political and economic development.

Another idea is to ensure that social innovation is used as a measuring criteria by which member states can evaluate their progress. This measure should be included in the Annual Growth Survey and European Semester which, so far, has looked at economic governance tools rather than integrating social concerns. Although this might seem administrative heavy, it’s very important and would allow social innovation to be at the heart of European policies and to be better developed throughout Europe. We also need to continue to raise awareness and knowledge of the tools that are available.

This is a great time to ask these questions. The European elections are later this month. For the first time the Commission’s President will be appointed on a proposal by the Council, by the European Parliament, taking into account the results of the election. This means that voters will have appointed the President who in turn should be accountable to them . In these times of changes, It’s important that we suggest how to improve governance structures, develop more capacity and ensure that social innovation can flourish.

How is the EC collaborating and working better with those on the ground to ensure that this agenda is pushed forward and that the tools and resources are being used?

In the first “Empowering People, Driving Change” report, we suggested that there should be an annual forum in Europe which would enable actors on the ground to connect with those in the Commission and have a real input into policymaking. The Social Entrepreneurship Forum held in January 2014 is a good example of this, with over 2,000 entrepreneurs, researchers, and policymakers meeting in Strasbourg. The event concluded with the “ Strasbourg Declaration” making specific recommendations to policymakers.

These exchanges proved to be very fruitful; a forum allows individuals to connect, to comment on policies and to monitor the progress of requests made the year before. It also allows for the development of the Europeanization of social innovation, one that combines our different traditions and definitions to better encourage constructive exchanges. Our diversity is our strength and will continue to be a driving force behind social innovation. I am delighted that the European Economic and Social Committee, which co organised the Strasbourg event, is following up on the recommendations of the Strasbourg declaration, to “make it happen”

Agnès Huber – Biography 

Agnès has been an adviser in the Bureau of European Policy advisers (BEPA) since 2005. Before joining BEPA, Agnes – a graduate in Economics (Bsc and DEA) and in Political Science (DEA) of the University of Paris – has held responsibilities in Development & cooperation (international commodity agreements), information & communication (information Europe – 1/3 world) and social & employment policy (head of the Unit Equal Opportunities for Women in DG employment). In 1996 she joined the Forward Studies Unit, which she left in 2000 to join the small team in charge of the White paper on European Governance. After the publication of the white paper, she was seconded for 2 years to the European Parliament.

In BEPA she has contributed to a number of projects and reports in the societal field: Investing in Youth, an empowerment strategy, Migration and public perceptions in the EU,Advantages of Europe ,Social Innovation. She has a specific expertise in the fields of gender, social and employment policy and fundamental rights. She is the author of two books (“L’Europe et les femmes, identités en mouvement”, ed. Apogée, and “Democracy and Information Society in Europe”, in Forward Studies series – Kogan page) and of numerous articles and academic contributions in the field of gender equality and European integration. She has developed and taught seminars on “EU and Gender” at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy (Tufts University, Mass. USA) and at the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies in Madrid. She has undertaken a research on the mutually reinforcing dynamics of gender equality and European integration.