A radical agenda for social innovation

WISERD/CRESC Civil Society Colloquium

18th and 19th May 2016, Cardiff


As part of the WISERD Civil Society programme, WISERD and CRESC jointly organised an international colloquium on 18th and 19th May at Cardiff University for academics, policy makers and civil society organisations involved in Social Innovation (SI) initiatives. As an international event the colloquium was organised in association with Ewald Engelen from the University of Amsterdam and Angelo Salento from the University of Salento together with Julie Froud and Karel Williams from CRESC and the Manchester Business School and Kevin Morgan from Cardiff University.

Within the UK policy community, SI is an umbrella term for solutions which address unmet needs. In mainland Europe, there is a much stronger connection to politics whether in the form of grassroots projects or the EU need for a social supplement to liberal market policies. In response to these policy debates, theorists have attempted to frame SI critically in terms of satisfaction of human needs, reconfigured social relations and empowerment or political mobilization. Ironically, SI is often used rhetorically and adopted as legitimating cover for state retrenchment and welfare cuts. Against this background of ambiguity, our aim was to promote a radical new agenda for social innovation by considering the scope for its application in the foundational sectors of the economy producing basic goods and services necessary to material security and by recognising that radical innovation needs political sponsorship and organisation because it will challenge and disturb mainstream problem framing and existing power relations. We brought together an eclectic mix of academics, practitioners and activists to share research and knowledge across a range of themes.

The colloquium was opened by talks from Julie Froud and Mick Moran (Manchester).  Julie set out an agenda for radical SI drawing on Robert Unger’s ‘maximalist’ approach which, in opposition to austerity, aims to find new practices and institutions to deliver solidarity and community.  Mick considered the dark side to the British constitutional settlement from the end of the first world war onwards to argue that we are in the ‘best of times and the worst of times’ facing irreversible damage but also opportunities to speed the ‘strange death of neo-liberal Britain’.  This stimulating start to the day was followed by a themed session on Financialisation that looked at the decline of the innovative CEO, new metrics, the case of German infrastructure and the activities of central bankers.  Following on from this Joselle Dagnes (Unito) and Davide Arcidiacono (Catholic University of Milan) presented a summary of a collaborative programme of research undertaken in Italy on the Foundation Economy covering areas from food supply, railways and water to the heritage industry which is part of a body of published work produced in collaboration with Angelo Salento and Filippo Barbera who also took part in the colloquium and is a visiting fellow with WISERD over this summer.

Following Lunch I chaired a thematic session on ‘Expertise, Capabilities and Rights’.  This included talks by Pedro Marques on smart specialisation strategies and Veit Bader on associative democracy.  John Buchanan visiting from University of Sydney Business School gave an inspirational talk on human capabilities and the session was closed by an illuminating practice based talk on human rights from Jamie Burton from Doughty Street Chambers/Just Fair.  We then had our first plenary talk from Judith Clifton form University of Cantabria, who drew on her understanding of European frameworks to argue that we need a shift away from market innovation to social innovation and drawing on Hirschman’s work on exit, voice and loyalty to move away from consumers back to citizens.

The final session of the day was on the theme of Participation, State and Democracy.  This contained sessions on the economics of popular sovereignty, sustainable food systems, collaborative innovation and civic enterprise.  Throughout the day the audience engaged with all the talks leading to stimulating debates and discussion that carried on late into the night over dinner.

The second day began with the second international plenary by Frank Moulaert from the Catholic University of Leuven.  Frank gave an overview of nearly 30 years of work in social innovation across a range of territorial spaces and substantive areas.  He made a robust and convincing case for less rushing to judgement and more ‘slow science’ in this field. Following neatly on form this Kevin Morgan chaired a session on ‘Geographies of Innovation’ that contained talks on local economic development, decentralising democracy in England, collaborative work in urban England and an inspiring talk by Jane Wills on process pragmatism as a means of underpinning research.  Following coffee, Filippo Barbera chaired a session on ‘Participation and resistance’ that focused on labour markets in the regions, resistance, and the state of the UK voluntary sector. This was followed by a joint presentation of the collaborative report entitled ‘Where Does the Money Go?’ on financialised chains and the crisis in UK residential care which was published in March this year.  The presentation led to a lively discussion that carried us through lunch to the sixth session on ‘Accounting and valuing’ chaired by Karel Williams which covered accountability governance, re-municipalisation and the impact of the Cardiff Capital Region Metro.  The final session of the day addressed ‘Housing and Innovation’ and covered examples form the USA on pension fund real estate investments, bottom-up housing first project for homeless Roma families, failures of the mortgage market and community reinvestment for affordable housing.  This led to a fascinating discussion of alternative means of financing as practical solutions to the housing crisis.

The two days left me exhausted but also with a feeling that we had gone some way to addressing our original aims. We had been able to work together as a diverse group of people who identified opportunities for taking these ideas forward for further research and writing and for broadening the networks that this colloquium has begun to put in place.  Already plans are being discussed for a follow up meeting in London next year and for looking at how this work can be applied to the Welsh context.