Social innovation and the challenge of democracy in Europe

David Lane and Filippo Addarii at Open Democracy: “What’s going on in Paris? This year over four thousand Parisians have been consulted on how to allocate twenty million Euros across fifteen projects that aim to improve the quality of life in the French capital.
Anne Hidalgo, who was elected as the Mayor of Paris in April 2014, has introduced a participatory budget process to give citizens an opportunity to decide on the allocation of five per cent of the capital’s investment budget. For the first time in France, a politician is giving citizens some degree of direct control over public expenditure—a sum amounting to 426 million Euros in total between 2014 and 2020.
This is an example of social innovation, but not the pseudo-revolutionary, growth-obsessed, blind-to-power variety that’s constantly hyped by management consultants and public policy think tanks. Instead, people are actively involved in planning their own shared future. They’re entrusted with the responsibility of devising ways to improve life in their communities. And the process is coherent with the purpose: everyone, not just the ‘experts,’ has an opportunity to have their say in an open and transparent online platform.
Participatory budgeting isn’t new, but this kind of public participation in processes of social innovation is a welcome and growing development across Europe. Public institutions need more participation from stakeholders and citizens to do their jobs. The political challenge of our time—the challenge of democracy in Europe—is how to channel people’s passion, expertise and resources into complex and long-term projects that improve collective life.
This challenge has motivated a group of researchers, policy-makers and practitioners to join together in a project called INSITE (“Innovation, Sustainability and ICT).” INSITE is exploring the cascading dynamics of social innovation processes, and investigating how people can regain control over their results by freeing themselves from dependence on political intermediaries and experts.
INSITE started with the idea that societies’ love affair with innovation may be misplaced – at least with respect to the way that social innovation is currently conceived and organized. The lion’s share of attention goes to products that make a profit—not processes that enhance the collective good or transform systems, structures and values.
The hype around the “Innovation Society” also obscures the fact that innovation processes bring about cascades of changes that are unpredictable, and may produce toxic side-effects. Just think about the growth of new kinds of financial instruments which exploded in the sub-prime mortgage disaster, triggering the financial and economic crises that have dragged on since 2008. Market-driven cascades of innovation have also contributed to global warming and obesity epidemics in the industrialized world. Not everything that’s innovative is valuable or effective.
As presently constituted, neither governments nor markets are able to control these cascades of innovation. They lack the means and the intelligence to detect unintended consequences and encourage innovation processes to move in positive directions. So how can this ‘boat’ be steered through the ‘storm’ before it crashes on the ‘rocks?’
Since 2008, researchers from INSITE and elsewhere have been trying to address this question by refocusing innovation theory on social questions, power relations and democratic concerns. For INSITE, the “social” in “social innovation” isn’t simply a marker for a target group in society or the social intentions of innovators and entrepreneurs. It stands for something much deeper: giving power back to society to direct innovation processes towards greater prosperity for all. In this conception, social innovation challenges the foundations of the “Innovation Society’s” narrow ideology. It provides an alternative through which engaged citizens can mobilize to construct a socially sustainable future. …more.