Is it possible to govern a bottom-up approach? And is it necessary? Even bottom-up initiatives need support and a place in the governance structure in order to succeed. Social innovation is an example of a bottom-up approach currently attracting attention in the Nordic countries.
It is not a new phenomenon – communities have been working together to come up with creative solutions to the challenges they face for years. Recently however, social innovation has been attracting increased attention as a possible service provision solution in demographically challenged areas – especially in rural and remote areas.
Social innovation as a local development tool
Social innovation is a rather special kind of innovation. It is not simply a new way of doing something involving people, rather than technology. It is an innovation which is produced by a community or a group that strengthens the community, both through the outcome and through the innovation process. Put simply, a social innovation is an innovation that is social in both its means and its end. It can only be initiated through a social process, and therefore requires some level of community spirit and cohesion. However, in the process of achieving its aims it also builds, or strengthens, the capacity of the community to respond to future challenges. As such, SI can be seen as having both direct and indirect benefits and is one of the key drivers of local bottom -up development processes. Though the concept is fairly new, activities that could be labelled social innovation have been happening for years.
Social innovation in urban areas has received quite a bit of attention but is considerably less well understood in rural and sparsely populated contexts. In contrast to anonymous urban life, rural areas are traditionally associated with strong community networks. Here, communities are often deeply rooted in particular places and the “local” dimension of every-day activities plays an important role in shaping the ties developed between community members. Such networks seem to be particularly important source of social innovation. They are also strengthened and supported through the innovation process.
Social innovation is attracting particular attention in the context of a growing push towards increased efficiency in the use of constantly shrinking public resources. It is also seen as a potential avenue through which to address the challenges faced by rural areas as a result of rural-urban migration and population aging.
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Governance and social innovation
There are two schools of thought regarding the role of the public sector in social innovation. Some see social innovation as a direct response to the failure of public policies – making it, by definition, independent from the public sector. For others, social innovation is a hybrid phenomenon, drawing different resources from public, private, third sector and civil society actors. Welfare regime contexts and forms of local governance (centralised v localised) play a substantial role in shaping understandings of social innovation and as a result they tend to vary between countries.
In the Nordic context, the relationships between municipalities and communities are often closer. This results in more public-sector-led social innovations and greater involvement from the public sector even in community-led social innovations. Many social innovations in the Nordic countries are initiated with at least some involvement from the public sector. Some continue to receive funding while some find other means of financial support. In some cases the local municipality is part of the new initiative before they hand it over to other actors.
Networks, both local and on a broader scale, are important in sustaining and scaling-up social innovations. This project found that promoting an initiative to a broader audience often resulted in opportunities to scale-up the original idea and even bring the same model to other Nordic countries. However, this also requires a sound financial model which may be based on income from members, public and/or private funds, sale of services or philanthropic donations.
Social innovation in the Nordic countries
In the Nordic countries the public sector is highly engaged in developing new solutions to address societal needs. The debate about how to spend the taxes in the most efficient ways is ongoing and many rural municipalities work strategically with engaging the civil society as part of their strategy for being an attractive area to move to. Although it is possible to discuss social innovation in a broader Nordic context, it is also important to recognise that there are differences between the Nordic countries. “Social Innovation in Local Development in the Nordic Countries and Scotland” is a web-based resource that provides in-depth insight into the national contexts for social innovation in each of the Nordic countries and in Scotland, along with 23 practical examples of social innovation in rural and sparsely populated areas. The project was conducted by Nordregio on behalf of the Nordic Working Group on Demography and Welfare 2013-2016, set by the Nordic Council of Ministers.
Example #1: Area committees in remote parts of Rovaniemi (Rovaniemi, Finland)
The City of Rovaniemi has established area committees in its most remote areas as a way to improve close-range democracy. The area committees are responsible for provision of certain public services (comprehensive education, culture, sports, youth services, health care information, day care, home care and local development) and the associated budgets. They also have budgets and responsibility for rural development in their areas. The motivation for the approach is that, given the population is aging and the distances are long, local knowledge is vital to creating solutions that suit the preconditions. The first area committee was established in the City of Rovaniemi in the 1990s and the model was scaled-up in 2013 to cover other rural areas of the geographically vast City of Rovaniemi.
Example #2: Sorø Senior Service (Sorø Municipality, Denmark)
Sorø Senior Service is a network of 60 volunteers who deliver groceries to elderly citizens who live far from grocery stores and have difficulty managing the shopping themselves. The innovation was devised by a group of retired people who met frequently for various social activities and were concerned about the implications of reduced mobility for elderly people living more remote with limited public transport options. A volunteer group was quickly established with the support from the municipality. The volunteers consist of retired people who have time to take care of grocery shopping for others. The service is free, groceries are paid for via the internet and delivery is once a week.
Example #3: Local solution improves Ramsjö’s public meal program (Ljusdal, Sweden)
A local entrepreneur in Ramsjö village has taken over public meal provision for elderly residents – a service which was previously a municipal responsibility. The initiative was part of the project Innovation Procurement X which aimed to test innovative public procurement as a new method for meeting societal challenges. Residents’ satisfaction with the service has increased since the new solution has been implemented and the social interaction enabled by the local approach has had a positive effect on well-being. Meals are now prepared locally, supporting local development through jobs creation and increased revenues for the local food store. The municipality is currently carrying out a feasibility study exploring the possibility of all public services in the Ramsjö district being outsourced and run by local actors.
Example #4: Innovation work in Bærum municipality (Bærum municipality, Norway)
Bærum municipality has been working systematically to mainstream innovation in the public sector. Among the achievements to come out of this work so far is a smart grocery shopping service developed and implemented by the in-home care staff. The initiative combines both technological and social innovation and is based on cooperation between the private sector (Kolonial.no food chain) and the public sector (Bærum Municipality). It allows service users to do their grocery shopping online using iPads during visits from home care personnel. Groceries are then distributed to users by drivers daily at fixed times. Six hundred home care service-users are now using the online shopping solution, resulting in both cost savings for the municipality and an improved experience for service users. The innovation has already been applied in other municipalities in Norway.
This article is part of Nordregio News #1. 2017, read the entire issue here.