Social innovation in forests: buzzword or opportunity?

Insights from a session on social innovation from the VI Mediterranean Forest Week in Lebanon.

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The tops of a dark green cedar tree.
A Cedar tree in Horch Ehden, Lebanon’s first nature reserve. Photo: Valentino Marini Govigli

This article is also published on the SIMRA blog.

What is social innovation? Over the last decades, social innovation has gained significant popularity as a process able to tackle societal challenges and improve well-being via the direct engagement of the civil society. Hundreds of initiatives have claimed to be linked to this concept both in urban and rural contexts and in all topics and domains. Is social innovation yet another fuzzy word in a modern century of trending topics and well-designed marketing strategies? One of the aims of the H2020 SIMRA project (Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas) is also this one: to identify and map what are the key variables desirable for Social Innovation to occur, so as to identify success (and failure) cases, and develop methods for their appraisal and assessment.

During the VI Mediterranean Forest Week, which took place from 1 to 5 April in Brummana, Lebanon, hundreds of researchers, policy-makers and other relevant stakeholders from the wide Mediterranean basin gathered to discuss Mediterranean-wide forestry issues. Emerging topics included: the role of forests for achieving NDC targets for COP21, existing linkages between forests and other sectors (water, cities and biodiversity), forest communication, socio-ecological resilience of forests and many more. Social Innovation was indeed one of them, with a SIMRA-organised workshop aiming at exploring the role of the Mediterranean region as an incubating model for social innovation, presenting real cases that demonstrate elements for success and best practices for replication and learning purposes.

Valentino Marini Govigli presents on SIMRA case studies at VI MFW.
EFIMED’s Valentino Marini Govigli presents on SIMRA case studies at VI Mediterranean Forest Week in Lebanon. Photo: Eduard Mauri

Understanding what social innovation means in the forestry sector is strategic. This will allow for assessing whether innovative and inclusive practices have the potential to develop out-of-the-box initiatives tackling both persistent societal issues (for example, wildfire risk, an increasing threat in the Mediterranean basin) and improving the competitiveness of the sector, by providing new products and services, which could promote the intrinsic multi-functionality of forests.  Also, evidence from the case studies analysed in SIMRA shows that social innovation initiatives can be formalised into policies and regulations, or scaled out to other areas and realities where they can be successfully replicated.

Forest fire volunteer groups in Catalonia; community woodlands in Slovenia; participatory initiatives aiming at tackling wildfire risks in Extremadura, Spain; valorisation approaches to the Non-Wood-Forest-Products sector in Tunisia; social entrepreneurs tackling inclusion of vulnerable groups in the forest sector In Catalonia, or creating burial woods in Italy as a key to improve the cultural landscape; engaging youth in planting trees to fight deforestation and land degradation in Lebanon. These are some of the Mediterranean cases that have been validated in SIMRA as examples of initiatives where a reconfiguration of attitudes (greater awareness), of governance arrangements (new formal or informal rules developed), and of networks (increase collaboration across local actors) has produced positive outcomes on the local social well-being, in economic, social, institutional or environmental terms.

Tree covered in moss.
Tree with little white primulas. Photo: Valentino Marini Govigli

The development of a key methodology to assess such cases is thus central for practitioners and policy makers alike. In SIMRA, such methodology was designed via a science-stakeholders co-constructed process of development, testing and validation, capturing both researchers and practitioners’ needs. This resulted in a full-integrated set of qualitative and quantitative approaches and tools, complementary to the Common Monitoring and Evaluation System (CMES). Such methodology is currently being tested in 11 case studies of SIMRA in order to assess whether it is flexible enough, allowing evaluators to analyse the different stages of social innovation, and the perspectives of the actors that progressively became involved in the initiative.

Also, understanding how to guide, implement, and support social innovation actions, allowing them to move their first steps on the local societal texture, is a complex endeavour tackled in SIMRA and presented during the symposium. Who is going to lead and take ownership of a social innovation idea? Is the idea feasible in the first place? Is the supporting agent well aware of the local communities‘ customs and the environment in which the idea is taking place? Are the legal and policy frameworks supportive of the idea? These and more are some of the issues which practitioners confront when supporting groups of local actors willing to develop new social innovation ideas on their territories.

Rows of cedar sapplings waiting to be planted.
Cedar saplings waiting to be planted for afforestation activities. Photo: Valentino Marini Govigli

The above mentioned are some of the key messages discussed during the dedicated panel, Social Innovation in Forests, led by Patricia Sfeir (SEEDS-int), which included speeches of SIMRA researchers (Riccardo Da Re – UNIPD and Valentino Marini Govigli-EFIMED), experts in the field (Bassam Kantar- SEEDS-int) and examples of social innovation cases from the ground (Cities4Forests, National Tree Planting Programme, FAOSNE).

Social innovation can be key for supporting the Mediterranean forest landscape and these important  examples from the region highlight this potential. Nonetheless, flexible frameworks are needed to provide evidence of what works and what does not work, to support practitioners and policy makers in assisting social innovation initiatives. As these cases make clear, local actors should be supported in sharing information and best practices, and to achieve funding lines in order to strengthen existing embryos of social innovation into long-term, successful initiatives. Only in such a way can we turn a perceived buzzword into a powerful concept, imperative for the future well-being of our Mediterranean society.