Unfolding the green side of social innovation

A new study analyses and classifies the environmental impact of rural social innovation initiatives across Europe through the lens of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

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Brainstorming for SIMRA project
Photo: SIMRA

The impact of human behaviour on the environment has surged at the planetary scale over the past half century. Growing urbanisation, pressure on ecosystems, diverging population trends are challenging the capacity of our planet to resist to human threats. If humanity wishes to stop exceeding planetary boundaries, major transformations are needed in the way we interact with our surrounding environment.

Social innovations are grassroots processes aiming to achieve impacts beyond an individual level and towards a broader societal good. They are new social practices (e.g., newly established partnerships between public and private actors, between third sector associations, etc.) that aim to meet social needs in a better way than the existing solutions. These needs include – for example – better working conditions, education, environmental footprints, community development or health.

In a recent study outcome of the former H2020 project SIMRA (Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas), a group of scientists has tried to disentangle the contributions of rural Social Innovation initiatives to the broader environmental sphere. The SIMRA project provided an advanced understanding of the mechanisms behind Social Innovation development in marginalised rural areas, in the fields of agriculture, forestry and rural development. Authors assessed a selection of local and international initiatives in European and circum-Mediterranean rural areas, compiled by the project SIMRA, through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

SDGs are one of the most widely applied agenda for sustainable development, recommending action on various social and environmental issue. SDGs recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand in hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, enhance economic growth through affordable and clean energy, promote innovation and enhance infrastructure, promote responsible consumption and production, while at the same time tackle climate change and preserve the ecological condition of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. The SGDs provide an objective framework to study the extent to which Social Innovation models across Europe impact positively the environment.

Out of the 238 initiatives analysed, researchers found that about 68% of the cases have at least one direct environmental impact that aligns with an SDG target. The most common impacts are related to sustainable natural resource management (SDGs target 12.2), sustainable food systems (2.4), and equal access to land (2.3). By assessing their environmental-related impacts, the authors were able to classify the initiative into 9 groups with different environmental focus. From enhancing awareness towards environmental protection, to fostering renewable energy, from sustainable forest management to waste reduction and recycling.

Sankey diagram showing the breakdown of the environmental impacts across the eight groups of Social Innovation initiatives by SDGs.

These findings show that Social Innovation models in rural areas cover a broad spectrum of environmental-related impacts. Most of these impacts are also of policy relevance, being intertwined with the ongoing policy agenda at both national and EU level (e.g., EU bioeconomy strategies, EU biodiversity strategy, Farm to Fork strategy), proving that the SDGs classification can be a useful analytical tool for categorising environmental impacts of policy relevance at international level. This indicates that with a favourable policy framework, Social Innovation can play synergistically with top-down legislative frameworks to overcome global climate change and environmental degradation challenges.

Full reference

Marini Govigli V., Rois-Díaz, M., den Herder, M., Bryce, R., Tuomasjukka, D., Górriz-Mifsud E., (2022). The green side of social innovation: Using sustainable development goals to classify environmental impacts of rural grassroots initiatives. Environmental Policy and Governance, 1-19 DOI: 10.1002/eet.2019.