Theory, policy and practice at the Università di Bologna

14.11.2012 Blog

The University of Bologna recently hosted an international workshop on social innovation bringing together academics, policy makers, entrepreneurs and students. The Young Foundation presented its work and some of the early findings of the TEPSIE project.

Set in one of Europe’s oldest universities, in a city with a history of radical politics, it was unsurprising that the many of Europe’s current challenges were never far from the debate. Fresh graffiti on a café near the university articulated the anger felt by many of the recent failings of the capitalist system.  Youth unemployment, political legitimacy, and the reform of the European Union were all raised during the sessions. To me, this anger emphasised the urgent need for societies to come up with new and innovative approaches to addressing the challenges they are facing.

The workshop started with a series of theoretical papers providing a conceptual framework for the day ahead.

Dennis Harrison from the Research Centre of Social Innovation at UQAM, Montreal used Bauman’s concept of ‘liquid modernity’ to provide a theoretical underpinning to the increasing overlap between different sectors and circulation of actors. This convergence of traditionally distinct sectors is creating a new social economy in which innovation has the potential to flourish.

There is no doubt that ‘social innovation’ is beginning to dominate the European policy agenda for achieving social change – one only has to look at the current FP7 calls.  Lars Hulgard from Roskilde University warned us that as we focus on addressing the problems of the future, we should not forget about what we can learn from the past. Hulgard argued that in order to better understand social innovation, we must look at the analyses of social change offered by some of the classic sociologists. He illustrated his argument by drawing on Max Weber’s analysis of the Protestant Work Ethic, which Weber saw as an innovation underpinning socialism. Hulgard suggested that Weber’s four-stage analysis provides a useful methodology for looking at social innovation today.

Hulgard did not dwell on the past. In the second half of his paper he set us a challenge for the future. “Dissemination is an old fashioned view,” he proclaimed, “we need to move into an arena of collaboration.” The Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) in Mumbai, Hulgard argued, is leading the world in demonstrating how a modern university should collaborate and produce knowledge. For decades the Institute has been active in addressing the needs of the nation. In times of crisis the whole university shuts down and the entire staff and student body are mobilised to helping communities in times of crisis. They were among the first to set up refugee camps after Partition, they assisted during the Bhopal disaster, the Maharastra Earthquake, the Tsunami and the Mumbai terror attack. In 2011, the Institute turned its attention to social problems closer to home, focusing on the problems facing communities living in Mumbai’s infamous M-Ward slum.  TISS undertook a massive mapping exercise in which over 20,000 households were surveyed, medical students and doctors visited homes with babies, and staff and students collaborated with informal community leaders and planners mapping school provision, sanitation, shops etc. This comprehensive analysis of the needs and assets of a community has built the foundations for the next stage of the initiative: tackling many of these problems. (Find out more: www.Platinum.tiss.edu/m-ward-initiative)

In the afternoon we moved from theory and policy to practical action. Three inspiring innovators and social entrepreneurs presented their work. One of these was Stefania Pellegrini, from the University of Bolonga’s Legal Science Department. She presented the amazing example of Libraterra, which highlighted the role that legal reform and regulation change can play in stimulating innovation and opening new markets to budding entrepreneurs. 

In 1996 the Italian government passed a new law that allowed the state to redistribute assets that had been confiscated from the Mafia to not for profit organisations. In the fight against the Mafia, the state had seized land, buildings and whole businesses from organised crime networks. Under the new law these could be put to good use. Libraterra has been setting up social cooperatives to make use of these resources. The cooperatives have provided new jobs for young people, infused the agrarian sector with entrepreneurial opportunity and empowered communities that had been plagued by organised crime. The cooperatives are now producing a wide range of goods from wine, to olive oil and pasta. Libraterra has developed a trademark, similar to Fairtrade, and is now supplying products to major distributers across Italy.

I would like to that the team at Università di Bologna for organising a fascinating and timely workshop that succeeded in sharing ideas and experiences about the theory, policy and practice of social innovation in Europe and beyond.