Social innovation in rural areas

UnknownHow can social innovation (SI) be used in regional development? 

SI is seen as a new perspective on bottom-up local development. We have been working in this field (“on and off”) for many years, and working with SI brings us into a different body of literature, which is helpful and interesting. In our perspective, SI has a potential to contribute to a more holistic and sustainable rural development, through strengthening local community spirit, social capital and the capacity for innovation, just to name a few positive feedbacks.

Can you develop some key findings from your current projects in this field?

The realisation of the project is still ongoing so we could share some reflections but these are not final findings. SI in rural areas is definitely an understudied field, although there are a number of interesting practices across the Nordic countries, many of them stay very local and unrecognized. It seems that if you adopt a strict definition of SI, as an innovation which is created by a social process which also delivers social value (i.e. increases the capacity for future SI), then I think examples of “purebred” SIs are quite difficult to find in the Nordic countryside. There is a lot of overlap between public sector (administrative) innovation, social enterprise, and philanthropy. So most examples we are aware of are “SI Hybrids”. This does not mean they are not interesting, just that our view should be more inclusive. The exact form of these hybrid types depends very much on the nature of the local governance and service provision context We are hoping to highlight this through comparisons with Scottish examples, but there are subtle differences between the Nordic countries too. There are also many examples of cooperative movements in the countryside when the local residents mobilize their efforts and develop initiatives to increase the liveability of the rural communities. Although this development is nothing new, it has increased over the past years due to increasing pressure on the rural communities linked to the demographic and economic challenges.

What are the main obstacles for social innovation to be implemented more broadly?

So far in our project, we have among other things identified public procurement rules as a barrier. There is also often a lack of suitable financing for the variety of different types of initiatives that social innovations can be. Another challenge we have identified is related to long-term partnerships between the public sector and the third sector or social enterprises, which is something that is being developed now for example in some municipalities in Sweden. Scaling up or transferring social innovation in rural areas is also often challenging, maybe partly because the initiatives are often very small and respond to local needs. and the few key persons behind them do not have the resources to disseminate their approach, so maybe more support could be needed.

Do you think that there is a Nordic model of social innovation and what are the characteristics? Are there any differences between the Nordic countries?

It seems to us that in the Nordics, the role of the public sector is particularly central in supporting and even developing innovative approaches, which is also related to the Nordic Welfare State model with strong municipalities. It is also clear that many activities are going on that could be regarded as social innovations, but are not labelled as such and are talked about in different ways making it difficult to compare and find interesting initiatives from the other countries. It may be a barrier for exchange of experience between the Nordic countries and we thereby think it is important to map the different initiatives going on across the Nordics.

To give some examples about the differences, it could be said that Denmark and Norway are particularly strong in the field of social entrepreneurship, and the concept and different models have been developed for a longer time in both countries. With grants from the government in Denmark two centres, the Centre for Social entrepreneurship and Danish Centre for Social Economy were established in 2013 but due to a shift in government and new political priorities the financial support ended by 2015. This relate to previous mentioned challenges about long-term partnerships to continue the ongoing development of established models for integrating disadvantaged people on the labour market which has been a central part of the work for several Social Enterprises in the Danish society. For Norway the term Social Entrepreneurship has part of the work among local authorities. Oslo municipality developed a Strategy for Social Entrepreneurship, but no action plan has yet been drawn up. The municipality of Trondheim has been strategically working with social entrepreneurship since 2014. In Finland, in turn, the field of social entrepreneurship is clearly still under development, but there has been a lot of focus on service innovation and design as well as on public sector innovation during the last years. Social innovations in Finland tend to put a lot of focus on being user-based, which is also the case in rural social innovation, where it is found that basing services better on actual user needs is the best way to develop and ensure services in sparsely populated areas.

What is the next step for Nordregio in the field of social innovation?

We are hoping to continue working with this topic also after 2016, possibly looking at SI in connection with integration of immigrants in rural areas.

Read more about the SIN project. 



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