Let the (social) seed grow: insights from seven rural social innovation actions

A recent study analyses the use of an operational framework to support early governance of social innovation actions, which are an important tool for rural areas to improve local living conditions.

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Rural societies in Europe and beyond are facing complex social, economic, and environmental challenges. These include rural depopulation, demographic changes such as aging, in- and out-migration, youth unemployment, increasing poverty and inclusion of vulnerable groups, as well as global issues connected to climate change, natural resource provision, and food security. These issues call for innovative solutions that are able to tackle such complex challenges in an integrated way.

Technological, organisational, and social innovations may provide different perspectives to address complex problems, complementing “business as usual” solutions, and allowing the development of policy, scientific, or technological advances. In particular, interest in social innovation for transforming or “reconfiguring” existing social, cultural, and economic arrangements has increased worldwide in practice and in the political arena. Some examples of it include the efforts taken forward during the Obama administration in the US with the establishment of the social innovation fund in 2009, as well as European legislations both at national and supranational level.

If social innovation can help to mitigate the adverse effect of environmental and socio-economic challenges, what can we do to foster its emergence? In SIMRA we tried to answer this complex question by conceptualising new tools and approaches which can offer a systematic support to innovators in designing and implementing social innovation initiatives. This led to the development of an operational framework aiming at accelerating social innovation projects, paying particular attention to the specific context in which the initiative unfolds.

The framework is articulated in four main phases: (i) a design phase, which defines the scope of action of the social innovation, by identifying the objectives and operationalising the activities; (ii) the implementation phase, which carries out the planned social innovation activities, including dissemination to the wider public, as well as an evaluation of the initial implementation, with the possibility to redesign the strategy; (iii) the consolidation phase, during which the initiative crystallises; and finally the evaluation phase (iv), when the whole initiative is assessed.

In this paper, we tested this operational framework in seven different locations across Europe and the Mediterranean basin (Spain, Lebanon, France, Norway, United Kingdom, and Italy) to initiate and support grassroots initiatives applied to forestry, agriculture, and rural development. This test aimed at verifying whether this framework allowed for overcoming the challenges faced during the early stages of a social innovation process, and succeeded in designing well-focused and feasible actions.

Our results proved this framework to be successful in supporting and initiating seven social innovation actions located in different European and Mediterranean areas, dealing with a broad scope of topics, from forest and human health to women empowerment; from agricultural land banking scheme to prevent wildfires, to rural hackathons to foster youth empowerment (for more information check the SIMRA website).

The practical implementation of this framework allowed the authors of the paper to extract a set of lessons learnt relevant to facilitators of social innovation processes in rural areas. First of all supporting innovators and local actors during the early stages of the social innovation process is key for identifying bottlenecks, such as lack of funding or policy barriers. Secondly, we discovered how needs and triggers of social innovations are not static but may change over time. Therefore ideas initially proposed change, adapting to emerging constraints or new opportunities.

Rigid approaches are thus not appropriate when designing and implementing social innovation actions, but rather they need to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. Lastly, we found that the feasibility assessment was capable of channelling strategic thinking on crucial dimensions that ultimately impact on the success of the social innovation, such as social networks management, financial sustainability, and expertise.

Such findings helped us to draw general lessons for the development and governance of social innovation actions in rural areas, potentially applicable to any rural sector. We believe that this research is relevant as it allows identifying a series of critical factors necessary for a proper establishment of social innovation initiatives, as well as providing a first attempt of standardising a management approach to initiate social innovation initiatives across rural areas.

Full reference:

Marini Govigli, V., Alkhaled, S., Arnesen, T., Barlagne C., Bjerck M., Burlando, C., Melnykovych , M., Rodríguez Fernandez-Blanco, C:, Sfeir, P., Górriz-Mifsud, E.  Testing a framework to co-construct social innovation actions. Insights from seven marginalized rural areasSustainability, 2020, 12(4).

About SIMRA

Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas (SIMRA) seeks to advance understanding of social innovation and innovative governance in agriculture, forestry and rural development in marginalised rural areas. The project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 677622.