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Migrants, social innovation and collaborative inclusion

Ezio ManziniDESIS Network, University of the Arts London, Politecnico di Milano

This article was written by Ezio Manzini, DESIS Network, University of the Arts London, Politecnico di Milano.

In the next decades, a growing number of people will be on the move. The challenge for Europe is to see this not as a threat, but as an opportunity. That is, to imagine how migration can become a driver of innovation towards a younger, dynamic, cosmopolitan and, at the end of the day, a more resilient Europe.   

Of course, nobody today can have a clear and precise idea on, if and how this positive perspective could become real. Therefore, the only wise move is to consider this broad view, i.e. the possibility of a new cosmopolitan Europe, as a design-orienting scenario: a shared vision on the basis of which to experiment local solutions, to discuss them and to use them to feed a broad social learning process. In doing that, a fundamental role can be played, and it is already played, by social innovation.

Until now, social innovation has highlighted how collaborative organisations can lead to concrete results and, at the same time, help to reweave the social fabric. Now we need to demonstrate how and to what extent these organisations, precisely because they are collaborative, can also be inclusive and can lead to positive results not only for the migrants, but also for the entire community.

Collaborative inclusion. In the complexity of the present society we can find examples of positive migrants-residents collaboration: initiatives demonstrating how the search of migrants’ inclusion can be turned in a collaborative service, and therefore, in the exploration of new ways of living and working. 

These initiatives are to be considered promising practices: prototypes of social organizations that, moving against the main stream, practically demonstrate that the migrant issue can become an opportunity. They can be very simple but very effective ones, as Refugees Welcome in Germany and now in several other countries in Europe[1] or The Bike Project in London[2]. Or, they can be complex and articulated, as the one of Riace: a village in the inner part of Calabria that has been revitalised through the implementation of a new model of local development, including the migrant energy, skills and entrepreneurship[3]. Many other examples could be mentioned (some of them have been presented in the several initiatives recently done across Europe on this subject – Social Innovation Europe’s Beyond Crisis Collection and "A Brighter Future for Europe: Integration, Innovation and the Migrant Crisis".) Their common denominator is that they have been able to resolve immediate problems and, at the same time, create innovation which have proposed and set up innovative economic and organisational models, and/or induced positive changes in ways of thinking and doing things (both on the part of the migrants and of the resident communities).

Reframing the migrant issue. These examples of collaborative inclusion tells us that, in the migrant case, as in many other intractable problems we are facing today, to search for realistic solutions we must start from reframing the same initial problem. That is, describing it differently. In the migrant case, this change can be summarised in three main steps:

  1. From migrants (people with a common dominant characteristic), to people-on-the-move (human being with individual motivations, experiences, capabilities and skills). This shift implies to assume a human-centred approach thanks to which every acceptable proposal must be built considering these people-on-the-move’s point of view and motivations, and must be based on their right and concrete possibility to express ideas, and choose what to do and how. 
  2. From traditional services (with clearly divided service user’s and deliverer’s roles), to collaborative services(different actors collaborating to get a commonly recognized value). This shift implies to assume a collaborative approach thanks to which every proposal must consider migrants as partners in the process of getting a shared value, and enable them to use at best their sensitivity, skills and knowledge.
  3. From managing existing human and physical resources(of the social service deliverers), to bringing into play new actors (the ones who, traditionally, had not been considered as social service deliverers). This shift implies to assume a systemic social innovation approach thanks to which every proposal must include unexpected actors and open unprecedented opportunities (permitting to solve solutions to problems that, otherwise, would have been intractable).

Connecting diversities. The previous three steps in the reframing process are clearly interconnected and we can see a progressive maturity in moving from the first, which is the most basic, toward the third, which includes both the first and the second. All together, they indicate the concrete possibility for collaborative solutions to go beyond the migrant issue, creating values for all the involved actors (migrants and residents) and for the society as a whole (in terms of physical and social improvements).

But this reframing process brings also a larger and deeper cultural contribution. It permits us to better understand that, in the present globalised and highly connect world, to live nearby strangers is becoming the new normal condition and we have to learn how to live well together (i.e. how people who consider each other strangers can cohabit a place and enrich each other).

Being the most tragic, visible and tangible expression of this larger on-going transformation, migrants can help us to raise the right questions, search for the answers and, hopefully, make some steps toward a more open and dynamic vision of the world in which it happens us to live. Together.

[1] A platform giving refugees the choice to go into a home instead of a camp, matching people’s spare rooms with refugees in need. And addressing issues of reception on a different scale,

[2] A workshop that repairs abandoned bikes and offers them to asylum seekers, as well as training asylum seekers in the skills of bike repair; in doing so, the project gives migrants freedom of movement, thanks to the bike, and creates skills and self-esteem, thanks to the same migrants’ participation to the workshop activities.

[3] A village in an heavily de-populated region where migrants have been invited to live in the existing empty houses and to start different kinds of craft, farming and management activities. In this way, migrants are able to exchange skills and gain a sense of citizenship. At the same time, they co-create, with the residents, value not only for themselves, but for the whole community.

04 May 2016