The way ‘social innovation’ is understood in Belgium, and its most recent manifestations are arguably influenced profoundly by the 2008 crisis and its aftermath. In discussing social innovation in Belgium, one would look at its social economy landscape, which is fragmented due to Belgium’s different language groups, unions and political pressure groups, each soughting out to create their own flows of grant finance to the social economy sector. The topics of social innovation and social entrepreneurship are also increasingly becoming integral to Belgian universities’ teaching and research agenda
Social innovation is time and context specific. That means it can mean different things in different context. What might not seem innovative in one country, may be ground breaking in another. The political and cultural background is important to understand. There are also a wide variety of organisations involved in this field, each have different perspectives. So, the purpose of this page is to demonstrate a variety of views on what social innovation means to different kinds of organisations in Belgium.
The voices from Belgium:
In 2011, i-propeller provided an overview of what social innovation looked like in Belgium. They noted the history of the field:
"Before the Second World War, Belgium had a remarkably rich history of social movements, cooperatives, autonomous and radical social organizations. After the war, the Government sought to boost the role of these initiatives as ‘employment creating agents’, channelling ever-larger grants to this sector [...]The 2008 crisis and its aftermath have arguably had a profound influence both on the way ‘social innovation’ is understood in Belgium, and its most recent manifestations. For some organizations active in the social economy sector, the crisis was a wake-up call to the risks involved with heavily, if not solely, relying on public subsidies. The crisis also accelerated the trend of mainstream businesses becoming more attuned to the needs of the ethical, socially responsible consumer."
They also note the 1995 launch of the new legal status in Belgium called 'company with social purpose': (‘société à finalité sociale’ in French and ‘vennootschap met sociaal oogmerk’ in Dutch):
"This status includes many clauses similar to those of a classical commercial entity, but also explicitly stipulates that the organization’s mission is to create social profit and not the accumulation of wealth by its associates. Since its launch, the take-up of this legal status has been very low (roughly 450 such ventures existed by 2008), arguably due to the few advantages (for instance regarding taxes) it offers compared to its many constraints (for instance, one is obliged to publish a report justifying how financial profits are allocated to the social mission). There is arguably scope for more innovations in this area: innovations that can help make it more attractive for organizations to launch social innovations in Belgium!"
In 2016, Europe for People provided an update to the above profile, first noting the rise of digital social innovation initiatives:
"As 60% of the Belgian population now owns a smartphone or a tablet, and with the recent rapid development of digital platforms, many digital socially innovative initiatives have been flourishing [..] They intend to revolutionize how some social needs are responded, with positive side-effects such as boosting social interactions, creating new job opportunities or reducing environmental impacts. Yet, their disruptive characteristics and the fact that a few of them are not local but global make these initiatives controversial. They compete with traditional businesses and non-for-profit actors and challenge some of the regulatory frameworks."
They provide examples in a wide variety of services:
- in Mobility - BlaBlaCar, CarAmigo, Uber, Djump (stopped in 2015)
- in Catering – Menu next door
- in Neighbourhood services – Weareallparents, Listminut, Freecycle, Peerby, La ruche qui dit oui
- in Accommodation – AirBnB, Bewelcome, CouchSurfing
- in Crowdfunding – MyMicroInvest, fablabs
Europe for People expands on this that in spite of increasing awareness of the added value of social innovation and of the need for supporting social innovators, the initiatives remain fragmented:
- In Flanders, the Social Innovation Factory is a networking organization that promotes, guides and supports social and societal innovative concepts. Flanders Region also uses the European Social Fund to support social innovations, with a sophisticated methodology (described in the Toolkit for supporting social innovation with the European structural and investment funds it published in 2015).
- In Wallonia, Union of social profit enterprises (UNIPSO) advocates for a structured social innovation support policy. Brussels Region’s Economic and Social Committee hold a seminal conference with stakeholders in November 2015.
- Throughout the country, Ashoka and King Baudouin Foundation actively contribute to the visibility of social innovations. A number of social innovation prizes were created during the recent years.
Read the full updated country profile here.