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The role of local governments in social innovation

In public discussions of societal challenges, in first instance attention was often turned to local governments and administrations – they were often considered to be in charge or responsible for addressing and solving these. In the wake of the last financial crisis and the associated budget cuts, but also with a new upsurge of societal engagement, many governments relied more and more on other societal actors to take up tasks. Many of these new initiatives and engagements can be considered as social innovations, as new practices or as fostering new social relations. What then is the role of municipalities in social innovation experimentation? And what is in it for them?

During the SIC project, five experimentation processes for social innovation took place in Turin, Zagreb (twice), Oslo and Parnü. These processes all followed the same methodology, but focused on different local challenges and were hosted by different actors. Local governments (i.e. cities, municipalities) played a range of different roles in these processes.

Host experimentation processes:

In two of these cases, municipalities were in the driving seat. Supported by the Social Innovation Lab, the City of Zagreb used the social innovation experimentation process to define and address numerous local challenges in the seventeen city districts. Think of the integration of refugees, underused public spaces or neglected city streets. The Municipality of Turin used the process to stimulate social innovation within the organisation. The aim was to address the challenges that local social service delivery was facing, such as long waiting times and high workload for staff.

Start navel-gazing and experiment within the organization:

Both these municipalities also used the processes to build capacity within their organizations regarding approaches and methods for co-creation and supporting social innovation. The actual processes were run and facilitated by a process designer (Turin) and the Social Innovation Lab (Zagreb) respectively. This external design and facilitation of the process support provided municipal employees with the possibility to experience different facilitation and collaboration methods first hand, but also to network with one another.

Become involved in experimentation:

Municipalities can also be ‘unusual suspects’ in social innovation processes – actors that were not involved in the process in first instance but who played an important role. This was the case in a second social innovation process taking place in parallel in Zagreb and which was hosted by the Croatian Independent Professionals Association (CIPA). This process aimed at increasing the awareness among independent professionals of the concepts and practices of social innovation and to support them in finding new and innovative solutions to individual and collective challenge. Employees of the City of Zagreb joined the process of formulating and prototyping solutions in the last phase and became involved in the Pop-Up Ilica experiment, which considers the empty spaces of one of Zagreb’s main streets as catalysts for incubation and as testing place for new cultural, artistic and creative projects, services and products.

Support experimentation processes:

A final, more traditional role of municipalities is of course to support such social innovation processes – whether financially, in kind or through providing legitimacy. In the Oslo process, the municipality was strictly speaking not involved. However, through providing funding (together with a foundation) for the host centre SoCentral to work on the integration of migrants – it supports the topic that was the main local challenge addressed during the process. In Parnü, the business development center, which is part of the municipality and responsible for attracting new business and supporting local businesses became interested the innovative solutions developed through the experimentation process and supported it through taking part in the competition that was organized.

We can thus find municipalities in a host of roles engaged in social innovation experimentation – what is running through all five cases is the fact that they have become one partner of many more that are collaboratively engaging in addressing specific local challenges. Municipalities are versatile and take up suitable roles in relation to the identified challenges.

How can local authorities make full use of the potential of social innovation experimentation?

Social innovation experimentation is an approach which offers many potentials for municipalities.  The experimentation processes served a double purpose for municipalities: on the one hand it is an approach through which to define and address local challenges and on the other hand it is through learning new approaches and methods that these processes build internal capacity. Both Zagreb and Turin enjoyed this double benefit: addressing local challenges and building capacity. These processes also allowed the involved municipalities to reach out to unusual suspects and start new collaborations. This was most obviously the case in Zagreb through the link with CIPA. Finally, being involved (in whatever form) in these kind of processes allows municipalities to stay in contact with what happens in their cities and which topics are considered challenges in urgent need to be addressed.