What is the role of the social partners in social innovation?

05.12.2012 Blog

What is the role of the social partners in social innovation? That is one of the questions that was raised in this morning’s workshop on social innovation hosted by Eurofound.

Eurofound have recently broadened their understanding of social innovation, beyond work place innovation, to cover activities and practices which resolve societal challenges or meet unmet social needs. Specifically, they are using the same definition as BEPA, namely, that social innovations are “new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words they are innovations that are not only good for society but also enhance society’s capacity to act” (BEPA, 2010).

This hasn’t been a straightforward or easy transition for Eurofound: some of the social partners (trade unions, employers and organisations that represent employers) with whom they work, especially some of the trade unions, have been sceptical of this new conception of social innovation and concerned about the way it has been used and applied, especially in policy contexts. In particular, trade unions have been concerned that social innovation is all smoke and mirrors: it merely provides a rationale for public sector cuts and for outsourcing public service delivery. In this context, the fact that Eurofound have broadened their understanding of social innovation and are now embarking on work in this area should be seen as a significant development and important achievement.

Eurofound are currently working with the Centre for Social Innovation (ZSI) to explore social innovation in service delivery to vulnerable groups. As part of this project, ZSI and Eurofound have carried  out six country case studies – in Austria, Italy, Ireland, Poland, Sweden and Bulgaria – and identified innovative activities within each of those countries.

The researchers shared some preliminary findings. For example, their research suggests that innovative activities are rarely labelled as social innovations and that there is very little understanding of or familiarity with the concept of social innovation among the social partners. They also made some tentative recommendations.  In particular, they highlighted the need for more supportive environments for idea creation, framework conditions for testing and evaluating social innovations, more and better cross-sectoral cooperation and greater discussion on how to institutionalise social innovation. The researchers will finalise their report in early 2013. 

There were also presentations from some of the social innovations identified over the course of the research. We heard from the first social incubator for social enterprises in Slovenia, a Swedish project called UMA which is working with the long term unemployed to reintegrate them into the labour market and a collaboration between transport companies in Dublin to tackle racism against transport workers. Each of these case studies was fascinating – and raised some of the challenges associated with funding social innovation and measuring impact.  

We look forward to seeing the final report!