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The potential of urban social innovation

Francesca Rizzo spoke with Jonas Bylund, Research and Innovation Officer and member of the Urban Europe Managment Board. He gives his unique insight into the importance of research and knowledge sharing to ensure urban social innovation can thrive. 


What have been the most important developments in social innovation research in the last 5 years from the perspective of Urban Europe?

From my point of view, there is less academic research around than there is contact and experience with groups of ‘actual’ innovators – which frequently also include academic research.

Although I think that anyone doing innovation is also doing research (building knowledge, shaping possibilities, etc.), most social innovators lack the capacity or resources to codify their knowledge generation into a format that would be acknowledged by conventional views on Knowledge (books, papers, texts).

So, an important development would be to find ways to generate and make these knowledges ‘mobile’ or ‘preferable’, to lessen the need to reinvent the wheel every time you embark on some project and for policy to better understand the situations that social innovation explores. There are some good examples in this direction by e.g. the Social Innovation Factory (SIF; which has a kind of knowledge sharing system) and the Social Innovation Acceleration in Cities (SIAC; that supports urban social innovation transnational knowledge exchange).

But even for me, personally, when I’ve been getting into social innovation, it’s been difficult to find the academic research (and I’m even trained to find it!). I’ve found it much more rewarding to use ‘grey literature’ and texts by social innovator organisations themselves that are not academic. I’ve even peer-reviewed a prospect-article for a well-established journal in urban studies, it mainly used this kind of references as well – something which seems to underline the issue more generally.


How does research in your field contribute to development of social innovations in practice?

JPI Urban Europe is in the field of urban sustainable development and aims to support R&I that are conducive in various ways to integrated approaches for urban sustainable transformations. By integrated approaches is not only meant interdisciplinary in the academic setting or cross-sectoral in the public administrations and policy. It also comes with a call to drive co-creation more widely between academics, policy and planning, business and industry, and civil society.

In this, we have a strong sense of social innovation in practice as the intersection between civil society and other kinds of actors. This is also why it is given a prominent place in our Stakeholder Involvement Platform


Which are the potentialities you see in Urban Social Innovation?

Constructive frictions and tensions with public administration regarding responsibilities and division of labour for various urban planning and management issues. For instance, over the last couple of years, in Europe we have seen the emergence of interesting social innovation to tackle deficiencies in various cities’ and urban areas’ practical ways of welcoming migration/forced displacement of people (mainly form outside Europe). While totally laudable from a humanitarian point of view, the question remains as to what degrees (in various settings) civil society did the job formally delegated to public administrations? And to what cost?

So, the potential in urban social innovation is partly that it may show a different and more dynamic way to deal with urban crisis. Partly that it provokes a reflection or debate on what we should expect from various actors in urban life (public administration, business, civil society, and even from academics). Urban social innovation may here be the vanguard to support and articulate the challenges that public service innovation (PSI) would respond to.


Would you describe the current relationships between the Urban Agenda for Europe and the SI development?

The potential and possible relations between the field of social innovation and the EU Urban Agenda probably depends on which out of the 12 partnerships (Inclusive of migrants and refugees); Air quality; Urban poverty; Housing; Circular economy; Jobs and skills in the local economy; Climate adaptation (including green infrastructure solutions); Energy transition; Sustainable use of land and Nature-Based solutions; Urban mobility; Digital transition; Innovative and responsible public procurement), but also in the cross-cutting issues set to immanate the priorities (such as e.g. citizen participation, integrated approaches, smart cities, adequate public services, and the international dimension), that defines the priorities in the agenda we’re talking about.

But there’s no doubt in that all of them come dimensions where SI would be nearly obligatory to make it work in practice in cities and urban areas. Put another way, it seems unlikely that they would have any impact whatsoever without SI – and note that this is not to consider SI in a ‘solutionist’ mode!


Can you tell a story of successful Urban Social innovation?

Apart from difficulties involved in deciding what is currently successful (and not waiting with the judgement a few years, 10 year, 20 years...), we also have a tricky issue in foregrounding a specific project in a specific city. Since JPI Urban Europe is primarily about transnational exchange and learning, I would rather point at European wide collaborations that seem workable and adding value: SIAC mentioned above. Also, the SEiSMiC project and specifically the three fora on new urban governance, public space, and new urban economy and migration respectively. These events always provided much inspiration and insights (for us who constantly fly around and risk losing touch with the urban street level) on how SI can tackle challenges.


How can Urban Europe contribute to the further dissemination and development of SI?

By developing our ways of funding activities (in technical jargon, our ‘instruments’). Most funding activities are currently honed towards a very academic orientation. That is, many times only academic institutions can be directly supported, but most of the times the application/bid procedure is simply not adapted to other kinds of actors than academics (this is true for Horizon 2020 instruments as well).

This bias towards research performing institutions is something that some social innovators see as a detrimental to social innovation, since it makes it very difficult not to include an academic institution as coordinators and intermediaries to secure supporting funds. Social innovators many times wonders what added value academics bring to their activities. In part, this probably must do with academics’ very different work temporal rhythm. But also, that they perhaps many times cannot shake loose their white coats and become performative in a different sense than mere observation and analysis. The lack of communication around expectations on different kinds of actors seems to be crucial here.

JPI Urban Europe will also contribute by providing an opportunity for local innovators and policy to meet and exchange experiences and perspectives. As was proven quite valuable within the SEiSMiC project, this ‘vertical integration’ increases understanding and optimisation all-round the diverse kinds of actors involved (including EC civil servants).