Europe discovers Social Innovation – and wonders what to do about it

October 14, 2009 at 8:46 am 2 comments

By Valerie Hannon 

In Copenhagen this week (Oct 12/13) some 20 representatives of various kinds of innovation intermediaries were invited by the European Commission to help them think about social innovation policy in Europe. The workshop was hosted by MindLab, the Danish government-sponsored innovation lab which supports three Ministries – Taxation, Employment, and Business and Technology. Christian Bason, Director of MindLab, facilitated the workshop on behalf of colleagues from the EU. Peter Droll, responsible for the development of innovation policy within the EU, explained that he felt there was an important window of opportunity about to open. With the imminent ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the convening of a new Commission, and a new Parliament session, he had been charged with the task of  addressing the issue of EU innovation policy, which he described as ‘a mess’… It was over-complex, not understood, and focused on economic competitiveness rather than broader social goals. There is, apparently, already an open consultation now ongoing (until November 16) on innovation policy. Droll’s vision was: Innovation Unlimited: Wake Up Europe!  He  posed the question : what role might innovation labs play in reinventing Europe’s approach to innovation? How might the EU support such labs, through simplification, improved financial support and a broader approach which focused on societal goals and ‘the wicked problems’? His timeframe for this task is to deliver a set of proposals by January 2010, in time for consideration by Heads of State in their spring conference in March. The direction of travel for this agenda had already been set by Manuel Barosso who has indicated that Europe cannot continue with existing growth patterns but must look instead at how to achieve different and more challenging social goals.

 Naturally, the leaders of social innovation labs from across Europe welcomed this initiative – though they all knew that the wheels of European bureaucracy grind things very small: the initiative might never see the light of day: but it was worth a shot.

 So, for two days, people from organisations as diverse as the Innovation Unit and  “>NESTA from the UK; Malmo Living Lab (Sweden) ; Medialab Prado (Spain), NEXT – Nuove Energie (Italy), and Strategic Design Scenarios (Brussels) and others from across the continent set about trying to generate some answers to the following questions:

  • What are Innovation Labs – how should they be defined?
  • What should be the vision for the future of these labs in Europe?
  • What is already being done – how should it be built on (or abandoned)?
  • What role should the EU take specifically to support such labs?
  • How should their impact be judged and their value assessed?

You’d expect – given the people in the room – that the processes used to address these questions were reasonably smart, and generated energy and creativity. They did. There was controversy too: should the EU set up a string of designated EU superlabs across Europe, each with a specific focus? Should the Commission itself establish an in-house lab (akin to MindLab?). This blogger  opposed this approach, arguing instead for a policy designed to support diversity and contextuality. This meant attending both to the demand and supply sides. How is the former to be stimulated and the latter made high quality and sustainable, especially in the context of the recession?  

 The torrent of ideas and proposals generated by the workshop will now be picked over by Commission staff. No-one should hold their breath. But the EU needs to generate fresh energy and momentum around a set of fundamental challenges. At least some Commission staffers see innovation labs as one of the ways solutions might be generated.


Entry filed under: Innovation Worldwide. Tags: .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thirup  |  October 16, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Valerie, i agree. I’m afraid that the creation of superlabs or an inhouse lab within the commission will in the long run be too static. As the work with Radical Efficiency has showed superlabs are not needed to generate good ideas. What is needed is flexible institutions that support the innovation process through brokering and knowledgesharing. In the Radical Efficient spirit i believe that once people are given the right right tools, such as our model :-), and risk capital is being devoted to letting ideas flow and grow then innovation will grow in areas where no superlab would ever have planted the seed in the first place.

  • 2. Michael Kaufman  |  December 15, 2009 at 12:52 am

    I might tend to agree with Thirup’s comments however since I am not familiar with his modeI would add a few additional thoughts.

    In our way of thinking it is important to have specifically designed physical environments as well as a dynamic collaborative design process that takes advantage of those environments. There is likely a role for both fixed innovation labs and what we tend to call ‘mobile units’ – giving the advantage of having people ‘come to you’ at the same time as being able to ‘go to them.’

    There is clearly a role for designated and specific environments designed to enable collaboration across multiple stakeholder groups. Having the stability of fixed locations as well as the flexibility of being able to ‘go where the need arises’ gives you the best of both worlds.

    In speaking about process, there is also a need for a robust methodology that goes beyond ideation and can see ideas through to their full implementation as well as enabling high degrees of learning and knowledge capture for future solution finding.

    Innovation Labs can bring the best of physical design, a robust collaborative process, and can impact the cultural changes needed for real innovation to occur.


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