Social innovation in cities

In its 2011 report Cities of Tomorrow – Challenges,visions, ways forward the European Commission identified four main threats to European urban development: demographic decline, threats to economic development and competitiveness, growing social polarisation and the depletion of natural resources. In addition, the report stressed the role of the economic and financial crisis not only as itensificator of many urban problems, but as also exposing the limits of the policies as formulated and implemented. In particular, it called for the set up of policies preserving polycentric, balanced, socially inclusive and culturally sensitive European model of urban development, through and integrated, cross-sectoral and territorial approach.

Cities are defined at the place where changes should take place as they are at the heart of the existing problems and available opportunities, and as stated in the Preface to Cities of Tomorrow :

More than two-thirds of the European population lives in cities. Cities are places where both the problems emerge and the solutions are found. They are fertile ground for science and technology, for culture and innovation, for individual and collective creativity and for mitigating the impact of climate change. However, they are also places where problems such as unemployment, segregation and poverty are concentrated”.

As such the following recommendations for actions towards the city were made:

  • Empowering cities to define their own policies related to their context
  • Ensuring transverasility of policies and impact of one area on the other
  • Supporting cities but leaving them room for maoeuvre in connecting with citizens
  • Letting cities decide of their own priorities

In order to face those challenges, cities are now threrefore increasingly using social innovation both in their means (by developing appropriate tools and methods, and by providing wider support to such initiatives) and in their ends ( the social innovation created through their initiatives), with the overall aim of « not only good for society but also enhance society’s capacity to act ».

Cities have indeed recently been taking an active role, supporting citizens, the private sector, local organizations and the other players of the civil society to participate in the construction of a more open and participative idea of society, where decisions over the common realm are taken in a participative way, and both societal, economical and environmental challenges and opportunities are looked at notably from the perspective of the idea of active citizenship. Cities are crucial in supporting social innovation, facilitating citizen’s and stakeholders’ participation, supporting new ideas generation, new srervice delivery models, re-building trust with citizens and re-defining their role within society.

Together, cities develop new forms of partnership and cooperation with all interested stakeholders, local entrepreneurs, civil servants, local associations,and policy makersin other fields, as well as citizens increasingly concerned and willing to play an active part and contribute to the work of the local authorities in order to find together new solutions of some key societal issues. The local scale of the initiatives makes it possible to jointly develop sustainable solutions to societal challenges increasingly possible.

As a grassroot social innovation, social innovation in citiesis characterised by its bottom up appraoch, and is being a spontaneous answer to societal issues imbedded in the territory. By making use of resources that are already in place, cities enable the fact that all the stakeholders involved are acknowledging the benefit (including pleasure) of collaboration and developing together initiatives where they take a more active role and propositive role within society. By means of this collaborative work, they innovate society from within, developing new socially sustainable solutions.

These new solutions can be oriented towards the development of new types of services (such as car-sharing, co-housing and so on), “people powered-services” where citizens do not merely passively receivea service, but become part of the service. This re-defines also the role of being a citizen, becoming one of the decision-makers concerning societal change.

More generally, cities, as any institution, are increasingly perceived as a partner for stakeholders,  in co-creating public policies or co-producing solutions to key societal challenges. Hilary Cottam speaks of the idea of relational state, stressing the importance of the relationship between the different players in civil society in order to reconfigure more participatory ideas of policy making.

Cities are more and more assuming the role of leaders in supporting the idea of peer governance, where innovation comes from a participative bottom up approach which is encouraged by the local governance, which was previously mostly regarded as being top down.

Altogether, the following trends of the changing roles between cities and stakeholders can be observed:

  • Involvement of stakeholders and citizens in the co-design and co-production of sustainable innovative services reconfiguration of public spaces for example through public innovation places;
  • Support to the shared idea of responsibility towards the “common” (space, goods, …);
  • Re-thinking the role of citizens and of other stakeholders;
  • Shift of weight towards local governance;
  • Increasing connection role played between citizens on the one side and the bigger picture (province, state and EU) on the other side.
  • Shared responsibility of urban renewal

A variety of programmes foster and support the actions of cities, including directly or indirectly related to social innovation. These are URBACT, as well as other EU-funded programme partners in ESPON, INTERACT, INTERREG IVC, European cities associations such as EUROCITIES and Energy Cities, and the OECD.

About this website

This website displays the URBACT CAPITALISATION PROCESS (EU project) work on "Social innovation in cities". The information and views set out in this study are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. Neither the European Union institutions and bodies nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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