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Social innovation policy in Europe: where next?

Sophie Reynolds (Nesta), Madeleine Gabriel (Nesta), Charlotte Heales (The Young Foundation)

Social innovation policy in Europe: where next?

Over the last decade, policymakers and public officials worldwide have shown a growing interest in social innovation. It is seen as a way to help address some of the biggest challenges facing governments and the societies they represent, from tackling climate change to promoting inclusive economic growth.

However, this interest has not yet been accompanied by a clear or comprehensive concept and framework for ‘social innovation policy’. In this report, we outline what a field of social innovation policy could encompass. We argue that it has two facets. It includes:

  1. Public policy that enhances supply of and demand for social innovation, as well as creating a wider environment in which social innovations can thrive. We call this ‘policy for social innovation’.
  2. Policymaking that is in itself socially innovative, when it adopts the principles and tools of social innovation. We call this ‘policy as social innovation’.[i]

The proposal for a more comprehensive concept of social innovation policy is not altogether new. Rather, it seeks to create a field of policy that adopts a wide view of innovation. In so doing, it draws on seemingly distinct but related ideas from innovation studies, social innovation research and public sector innovation to reap the concept’s fullest benefits for society.

After describing policy tools for social innovation generally, this report looks in more detail at the work that the European Commission (EC) has done in this field. The EC has been a leading proponent of social innovation for over ten years. Directorates-General (DGs) have used several of the policy levers at their disposal - from structural funds and public procurement to regulation - to promote social innovation at a European level and in Member States. The EC has invested considerably in social innovation research and has led experiments in social policy innovation.[ii]

Nevertheless, the EC could play a stronger role in providing a coherent framework for social innovation in Europe and in driving this agenda forward. While good progress has been made, we therefore challenge European policymakers and decision makers to go further in forging this field, in particular by:

  • Actively working with key stakeholders within and beyond the Commission to create a more harmonised and coordinated framework and agenda for social innovation.
  • Further empowering policymakers to use the tools and principles of social innovation to make better, more innovative policy.
  • Helping find ways to enable social innovation to flourish in those places and policy fields where the concept is still new but could add great benefit.

Defining a coordinated European social innovation strategy that can be directed towards addressing some of our most complex societal challenges also requires participation and active involvement of EU Parliament and other EU institutions - such as the Committee of the Regions and European Economic and Social Committee - and a willingness on the part of Member States to look for opportunities to support, encourage and adopt social innovation approaches and goals.

Read the report in full here.



[i] We’ve adopted the distinction between ‘policy for social innovation’ and ‘policy as social innovation’ proposed by the CRESSI project. Cited at: Edmiston, D. (2015). EU Public Policy, Social Innovation and Marginalisation: Reconciling ambitions with policy instruments. CRESSI Working Paper Series No. 18/2015. Oxford: University of Oxford.

[ii] DG Employment uses the terms ‘social policy innovation’ to refer to reforms in the field of social services planning and/or delivery that include one stop-shop approaches; personalised approaches to social services; and innovative strengthened partnerships between public, private and civil society sectors. See more at: Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion. (2015). Social policy innovation: Meeting the social needs of citizens. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.