The “Social Innovation Experiences from the Social and Solidarity Economy” virtual side event for the 8th Annual STI Forum was co-organized by the United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on the Social Solidarity Economy (UNTFSSE), in partnership with UNTFSSE Observer organizations: Diesis Network, the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS), and the Canadian CED Network. The aim of the event was to showcase the strategic value of the social and solidarity economy (SSE) in policy discussions on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a time when SSE is gaining global policy importance with the recent adoption of the UN General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/77/281) “Promoting the social and solidarity economy for sustainable development” and the International Labour Conference resolution (ILC.110/Resolution II) on “decent work and the social and solidarity economy”. These landmark documents define SSE as encompassing “entities that are engaged in economic, social and environmental activities to serve the collective and/or general interest, which are based on the principles of voluntary cooperation and mutual aid, democratic and/or participatory governance, autonomy and independence and the primacy of people and social purpose over capital in the distribution and use of surpluses and/or profits, as well as assets...”
Yvon Poirier (RIPESS) and Samuel Barco (DIESIS) opened the event by welcoming speakers from five continents and emphasizing the role of the UNTFSSE in promoting social innovation as it is “at the heart” of SSE. Various speakers then shared experiences of social innovation through SSE initiatives to tackle the multiple crises facing people and the planet. Speakers included: Samuel Barco (DIESIS Network), Marie Bouchard, (Government of Canada’s Co-Creation Steering Group on Social Innovation and Social Finance and member of the Scientific Committee and Board of TIESS), Michael Toye (Social innovation Advisory Council of Canada and Canadian Community Economic Development Network), Kanika Verma, (Sustainable Business Solutions-Development Alternatives Group, India), Gianluca Salvatori (Euricse), Dr. Blanca Miedes, (International University of Andalusia-Huelva), Kerryn Krige, (Marshall Institute for Philanthropy and Social Entrepreneurship, London School of Economics and Political Science), and Juan-Manuel Martinez Loubier (INAES).
Key issues discussed were:
- Reclaiming the systemic transformational objectives of social innovation. There are two main contrasting political approaches to social innovation: one focuses on outcomes through marginal, piecemeal improvements to a social problem; the other focuses on the process, through empowering communities with new capacities to address the underlying causes of their social problems. To some extent, these are reflected on one side in a “weak” social innovation approach (small innovations addressing smaller elements of a wider complex situation); and on the other side a “strong” social innovation approach which aims at a broader socio-economic and ecological transformation, bringing with it a strong level of permanence or sustainability. The latter could be a new law, regulation, product/service, program, or organization that is brought about and sustained by collective mobilization of civil society and social movements.
- Social innovation as collective action, not individual initiative. Strong social innovation involves partnerships, alliances, or networks of multiple actors with complementary assets that create an “SSE ecosystem” for sustained transformative change. Examples were highlighted from Quebec, Canada, Uttar Pradesh, India, and Mexico.
- Social finance: a key social innovation within a broader SSE ecosystem. Because SSE entities place their social/ecological mission above profit, they face unique challenges, notably in accessing long-term affordable finance, as recognized in the ILO resolution. A wide variety of innovative formal and informal financial mechanisms for SSE (referred to as social or solidarity finance, detailed for example in the ILO research project Financial mechanisms for Innovative Social and Solidarity Economy Ecosystems) aim to address this challenge. While in an era of widespread public budget cuts across the world, there are potential prospects of increased support to SSE by international financial institutions and development banks called for in the UN resolution. The question is not only about the amount of the resources allocated to the SSE, but whether social finance is part of a wider SSE ecosystem development strategy.
- One size does not fit all. In the effort to scale up SSE social innovations, a key challenge is to ensure that models that work in one context are not blindly transferred to very different situations. The ILO has recently explored the extent to which SSE entities contribute to generating social innovation in Africa for a more sustainable and inclusive local development, as well as the creation and promotion of decent work for all. This work highlights internal and external factors impacting SSE entities in their social innovation processes and it presents a set of policy recommendations to unlock the potential of SSE entities as catalyzers of social innovation in select African countries.
- Ensuring that the social dimension is included from the outset in all innovation policies/programs.
- Ensuring that social innovation is understood as a collective transformational agenda that addresses systemic root causes of social and ecological crises (thinking through transdisciplinary multi actor processes envisioning a multi-dimensional “spherical” as opposed to just “circular” economy).
- To this end, supporting not just desired sustainable development outcomes, but investing in collective democratic processes of social innovation through multi-actor co-construction.
- Screening actors that claim to be part of the social innovation trend, depending on whether principles and values correspond genuinely to those defined for SSE entities, such as described in the UN GA and ILC resolutions.
- Supporting the development of financial mechanisms for social innovation through SSE within a much broader co-constructed SSE ecosystem development strategy adapted to the local context.