SI-DRIVE International Round Table on June 13th, 2017: “Social innovators are better than rocket scientists”

The opening salvo for the discussion in the second International Round Table was one to remember: “What has SI-DRIVE to show after four years of work?” A rightful question that our participants put to the SI-DRIVE team. And it shows that our final discussion was not organised to appease participants.
The Policy and Foresight Work Package in the SI-DRIVE project has been managing a large set of discussions with stakeholders and policy makers over the past three years. These discussions culminated in the final International Round Table for the project. Next to six participants from the SI-DRIVE consortium, some 19 policy makers, social innovators and other stakeholders participated. Six of the 19 policy makers come from the European Commission, European agencies or the European Parliament. We can say that all relevant policy levels (EU, national, regional and local) were present in the discussion.

The discussion was organised in such a way that the participants started with two discussions on how social innovations play a role in achieving social change in different policy fields and, secondly, how the nature of social innovation changes over time. Policy support for social innovation should build on the outcomes of our research work on both topics. Our 1000+ cases and our in-depth 82 case studies deliver building blocks for policy making.

The morning session resulted in the opinion that there is a role for social innovations to achieve social change, but that we should not be overly optimistic of possible impact. For the moment, the attention should be on more impact assessment of the role of these social innovations in social change. The limited impact of current social innovations is also the result of unclear policy (and other) support for social innovations. The SI-DRIVE results showed that social innovations are quite different in nature in the start-up, the scale-up (or as one of our SI-DRIVE partners says: share-up) and institutionalisation phase. The discussion hovered around the opinion if support is mainly needed in the start-up or scale-up phase. The end-result was that most participants expected that policy would mainly be effective in supporting scale-up: currently, too much effort is invested into start-ups. This is seen as wasted money and effort. We are not seeing enough social innovations getting to the institutionalisation phase. Therefore, we need to learn more about how to support these efforts. This not only requires more funds, but also a different attitude from policy makers. Policy makers currently easily accept that we need thirty failed rocket launches to get one into space. This attitude does not exist towards social innovations: social innovators need ‘instant karma’ and this makes it more difficult for them than rocket developers. They don’t get a lot of time to make their (social) innovations work.
These first discussions were a fruitful base for the third step in the programme: Which policy options do policy makers then have to support social innovations? The SI-DRIVE team had already delivered a research note to the participants in whom they showed that a combination of ten actions is needed from policy makers and other stakeholders. The aim of the afternoon workshop was to work in two groups to find out which combination of measures is most effective for solving two social innovation cases.
These three steps were helpful for bringing the whole group to a final discussion about which multi-level policy support (EU, national, local) is fruitful for supporting social innovations to scale-up. To make the policy positions as explicit as possible, EU-level actors were positioned against other policy level actors. The outcome of this ‘fish-bowl type of discussion’ was that the EU surely can help in delivering more resources (for example through EASI and ESF), but that it is equally important to deliver better concepts, information and examples of social innovations. The support should be focused on the scale-up phase, aiming to eliminate barriers for social innovation (for example regulations), changing the power structure blocking progress, and creating a broad support system (ecosystem). Of course, collaboration with national governments should be central in this.
To what degree is this then new, as the starting question was for the day? Well, the SI-DRIVE team is not easily put on its defensive. Just a couple of statements cannot show all of the significant outcomes of the project. This would be misrepresenting all of the results achieved. But just consider this: The dominant public view on social innovations is that such innovations should all finish up in the market-place. The current public opinion is that all social support innovations eventually should end-up as Uber. This may surely be the case for some social innovations, but the SI-DRIVE results show that the reality of social innovation is very heterogeneous. This diverse reality requires a broad set of actions from policy makers. Our projects points out the main directions for such support. SI-DRIVE is not content with the “it-depends” answer, but you need to make the effort to learn about our results. Good answer? Happy to hear your opinion!
Steven Dhondt (TNO)