The WILCO Project: Findings on Sustainability and Diffusion

03.03.2014 Blog

When people discuss social innovations, they often focus on the successful cases which have spread far and wide. But to what extent does this reflect the reality of social innovation? And what does it take for innovations to survive and spread?

Such questions, and others, were covered by the project ‘Welfare Innovations at the Local Level in Favour of Cohesion” (WILCO), one of the major EU-funded research projects of the last few years. It brought together universities from ten countries, with the research network EMES in charge of dissemination and Radboud University Nijmegen coordinating the overall project.

In a nutshell, we went through the following steps:

- First, we mapped the main patterns of social exclusion in European cities, based on Eurostat data and other sources.
- Next, we examined a total number of 77 cases of social innovation initiated to combat these social problems.
- We then linked emerging innovations to types of urban governance, for which four regimes were identified.
- Finally, we made observations with respect to their sustainability and diffusion.

It is on this last part of the findings that I will focus here, though of course there is much more to tell. 

The sustainability of social innovations

There is a tendency in publicity on social innovation to discuss successful cases and those that are scaled up to a system-wide level. Based on our evidence, it must be concluded that the reality of local social innovations is a different one. The majority remain local and last only a limited number of years. The emphasis on success stories and scaling-up is an important one, but it is equally important to realise that the majority of local innovations (especially those not originating in professional organisations) do not fit such a pattern of growth and that one should not disregard the cumulative effect of the many small, temporary initiatives that are of high value within their local context. Public policy  should therefore not focus only on the selective group of innovations with a high growth potential, but also on the capacity of cities to continue generating many new initiatives of a highly local nature. 

Of the innovations we studied, the majority were either discontinued after a few years or faced an uncertain future in the short term. Cutbacks in public sector funding no doubt play a part in this, but the underlying structural dynamics, such as project-based funding, dependence on charismatic initiators and shifting political fashions, suggest that the underlying conditions are of a structural nature.

The most sustainable innovations were those that were either fully integrated into the local welfare administration or even initiated by the local authorities. Generally, local authorities tended to favour innovations that were complementary to their growth strategy, aimed at making the city more dynamic and attractive. This means that there is not necessarily a smooth fit between social innovation and economic growth agendas. 

Another factor that affected innovations’ chance of survival was whether they involved a wide coalition of parties. Such parties could include the third sector, local governments, businesses and groups of citizens. A broad alliance made it easier to sustain the innovation even when one of the parties (like the local authorities) withdrew its support. Highly vulnerable were those innovations which were primarily dependent on European funds.

Finally, what also mattered to a large degree was the governance style of local authorities. Innovations could more easily gain recognition and sustainability where there was an open governance style, that is, where authorities proved open to contributions to local welfare by different parties. To some extent such openness appeared related to institutional factors, such as the level of decentralisation within the state structure and historical traditions of working with the third sector; but it also depended on the nature of local politics, the prevailing discourse and availability of people who could act as ‘boundary spanners’, connecting institutional and life worlds.

The diffusion of social innovations

Another way for social innovations to gain a longer life is for them to be diffused to other cities and countries. Unlike many products, which can shift places easily, social innovations have to be ‘translated’ to be effective elsewhere. The adaptation may concern the structure of an innovation, e.g. its formal organisational shape, but also the regulation that supports it, the instruments through which it is implemented, or the discourse with which it is described and justified. Innovations are therefore usually hybrids of different ideas and inspirations.  Given that such a process of reconstruction and translation must take place, it requires new ways of collaboration, for example, between governments and citizens, and new ways of thinking.

Our material shows that, in local welfare, this process does not start when an innovation is introduced, but usually well before that. Rather, it is the other way round: an innovation is adopted when minds are ripe. A good idea is not convincing in itself – it comes when people are open to it. What this means is that adopting an innovation from elsewhere is, from the perspective of the adopting parties, not fundamentally different from inventing one. After all, it requires similar breakthroughs in institutional routines, whether of content, collaboration, or other aspects of working.

Research on diffusion tends to focus on the process after the adoption, and then especially at successful cases of adoption. Yet the innovative capacity of a city is not only reflected in what is adopted (a specific approach to solving a problem), but also in the groundwork that is done before the adoption (getting the right people together, getting minds ready for new options). This is highly relevant to public administration reform, because it means that simply finding the right kinds of solutions is in itself not enough. It requires a different approach to governance.

Further resources

Let me welcome everyone to look at our findings in more detail on our website. In particular, I recommend the following free resources:

- Three mini-documentaries which explain our findings in 3 x 15 minutes 
- The innovations are systematically described and comparatively analysed in the e-book Social Innovations for Social Cohesion: Transnational Patterns and Approaches from 20 European cities, available for download at http://www.wilcoproject.eu/ereader-wilco/

This blogpost has been written by Taco Brandsen.