5 December 2017 | by Rafael Ziegler


Europe and social innovation – travel notes from an Odyssey

The European Union!? Don’t even mention it!


Or so I remember one of my first impressions when conducting field work in rural Southern Germany. Introducing myself as part of an EU-funded research project provoked responses such as “The EU? These are the people who ban open air barbecues during villages festivals as long as there is no roof covering the barbecue!”

Beyond such predictable (and often unfair) associations with ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘red tape’, there was a more serious sentiment: “ The EU! That is the political entity that keeps on talking about political union but over the last decades has enforced an agenda of privatization and liberalization of goods and services that risks undermining society” (although not in so many words).

Political scientists distinguish between cosmopolitans, the educated, frequent flyers that by-and-large benefit from open borders, and communitarians, who are dependent on the solidarity of nation states and smaller political units.

Many communitarians have experienced the last decades in the European Union more as a threat to their existence than not. They are skeptical of ‘cosmopolitan’ EU-talk and increasingly attracted to the varieties of nationalist populism across Europe.

So what to do?

Focus on social networks

Don’t talk about the ‘European Union’. Focus on working together in concrete areas.

The European Union was born not least thanks to the tireless efforts of the ‘cosmopolitan’ innovator Jean Monnet. Monnet coordinated ‘concrete acts of solidarity’  to help overcome endless wars and create the peace needed for trade (not least of the Cognac distilled in his native town…). His approach was elitist and top-down. However, the idea remains attractive: focusing on practical issues can create networks of people working and living together.

During our research project I learnt that many social innovations strongly depend on networks. The networks’ coordination of local initiatives, organizations and individuals can foster adaptive social value. But does social innovation policy sufficiently recognize this contribution? For example, rather than only focusing on new ‘ideas’ in the European Union Social Innovation competition, why not add a parallel track recognizing and rewarding established networks?

The Ulysses opportunity

There is a lot of focus on agency and participation in social innovation discussions. However, another lesson from the focus of our research – social innovation for marginalized groups – is that marginalized and exclude groups are especially unlikely to participate. The reason for this is simple: the way participation is organized in such a context tends to marginalise and exclude these groups. (Think about it – why are they marginalised and excluded in the first place?)

If at your regional or national level of power, you have a persistent marginalisation and exclusion issue with your involvement, you may need to remove yourself from the situation. Why not voluntarily bind yourself and create space for more-detached EU–level actors to directly invest in alternative approaches and people at the local level. Call this the Ulysses argument for smart leaders.

The final question

When we talk about social innovation, what are the things that are not being talked about?

While the internal correspondence of an EU project produces thousands of emails travelling between countries and the respective partners, in our EU-project there was a surprising shortage of emails dealing with Brexit (I would say fewer than the fingers on a carpenter’s hand).

Was this a polite or an awkward silence? Were we trying to enjoy our shared membership of the EU while we still had it? Or is it that (trivially, but also important for social innovation more generally) it is difficult to talk about difficult issues?

It raised an important question – what do we not talk about when we talk about social innovation?  And how do we listen to these silences? Is there a way to make space for moments of silence in social innovation research, to help us hear the unsaid things, perhaps even at our final conference?

About the author

Rafael Ziegler is a GETIDOS Fellow and member of the EU-Project Cressi (Creating Economic Space for Social Innovation).

This blog has been prepared for the Cressi-Project Conference Blog.

The results of the project have since been published in the book  Creating Economic Space for Social Innovation.