The concept of SI can be traced historically to utopian social reforms in the early phase of industrialization in the 19th century, according to Godin. It was recovered in Europe in the 70’s of the past century when the “trente-glorieuses” faded into a systemic crisis of the welfare state and neoliberalism was established as a paradigm. New social movements – such as feminist, civil rights, ecologist, and democratization – marshalled a critique against welfare bureaucracies claiming greater subjectivity, participation, and individuality against the Fordist standard provision of state services. Examples range from the demedicalization of birth, to democratization of schooling, localization of energy production, recognition of sexual diversity, or inner-city regeneration. All these movements claimed a specific space of citizens for autonomous action. Much of the innovation was focussed on process, related to key ideas of participation, empowerment, transformation, and emancipation.
European policy-making and funding
In European policy-making, from 2006 onwards, social innovation was taken up as a policy instrument, such as in the ‘renewed Social Agenda’ and the Lisbon strategy. Two landmark reports of an EU internal think-tank BEPA coined concepts and structured the practice to be developed in 2011 and 2014.
European finance was channelled towards the policy instrument, namely in the European Funds for Investment, Research and Encounter:
- European Funds: In the ESF regulations 2014-20, a specific article was dedicated to social innovation and a programming priority was established.
- Research: Horizon 2020 financed a number of projects such as Wilco, TEPSI, SI-Drive, Simpact, Transit, Solidus, Cressi, ITSSOIN or ImPRovE.
- Transnational Encounter: Networks for experience exchange on social innovation, such as SIKE or SIX, and social entrepreneurship, such as Euclid.
While, since 2006, the notion of SI gained traction in the EC discourse and translated into regulation and funding, the practice itself was unevenly taken up in the Member States. Furthermore, when the crisis of 2007-08 translated into a protracted depression, the priorities in SI shifted from its initial vision to generate adapted answers to new needs to stress the growth-building role of social innovation and conceive it as a measure to fill in the gaps that were left by the classic welfare state much under stress from the austerity policies. Up until today, a rather technical and mostly market and entrepreneurial-oriented approach, in line with the social investment paradigm of an “enabling welfare state”, lives alongside a bottom-up approach of transformative social innovation.