Social innovation is considered a key tool for achieving the objective of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth envisaged by the Europe 2020 Strategy (European Commission 2010, 14). Against this backdrop, research carried out within the ImPRovE project has investigated how social innovation made its way onto the European Union (EU) agenda and which kinds of instruments and resources the EU has made available in order to promote and support it. The analysis concerns the period 2006-2014 and it mainly focuses on social innovation in the field of poverty and social exclusion.

Social innovation is a multifaceted concept whose understanding and definition differ both among and within scientific, civil society and governmental circles. In this analysis, we mainly rely on the definition elaborated by the European Commission’s Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA), which can be seen as an ‘unofficial’ EU definition of the concept. The BEPA (2010, 33) defines social innovations as

[…] innovations that are social in both their ends and their means. [They are] new ideas (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs (more effectively than alternatives) and create new social relationships or collaborations. In other words they are innovations that are not only good for society but also enhance society’s capacity to act”.

The renewed Lisbon Strategy (2006-2009): social innovation ‘between the lines’

Viewed through the lenses of the broad definition reported above, it can be said that the notion of social innovation is not entirely new at the EU level. Over the period of the renewed Lisbon Strategy, a number of EU instruments and processes promoted social innovation, including the Structural Funds, the Social Open Method of Coordination, the PROGRESS programme, and the 7th Framework programmes for Research and Technological Development.

However, it would be hard to claim that a coherent EU framework for promoting social innovation was in place. First, a variety of interpretations of the notion can be detected, some of which emphasised innovation related to the reform of welfare policies, others to social business and the social economy, and others to local level initiatives. Second, the initiatives implemented were piecemeal: links and synergies between the various instruments and processes were largely missing. Third, the label social innovation was rarely ever used and, though a number of instruments and processes actually supported it, social innovation was rarely explicitly mentioned among their objectives. In this sense, one can refer to a situation of ‘social innovation between the lines’.

The agenda setting role of the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (2009-2010)

According to our analysis, the Bureau of European Policy Advisers played a key agenda setting role in raising the attention paid to social innovation at the EU level. Activities carried out by the BEPA in 2009 and 2010 – including a high-level workshop attended by the President of the European Commission – represented an occasion for a) bringing together the variegated policy community of people dealing with social innovation (policy-makers, researchers, NGOs’ representatives, and social entrepreneurs), b) proposing a broad definition of social innovation, trying to include the diversified existing interpretations of the concept, and c) bringing the issue to the attention of EU leaders at a critical juncture of EU politics, i.e. the elaboration of the Europe 2020 Strategy.

Mainstreaming social innovation into the Europe 2020 Strategy (2010-2014)

Social innovation was thus ‘mainstreamed’ into the Europe 2020 Strategy: explicit references to such a notion can be found in both constituent elements of the Strategy (e.g., the Integrated Guidelines, the flagship initiatives ‘European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion’ and ‘Innovation Union’) as well as policy instruments implemented as part of Europe 2020 (e.g., the Employment and Social Innovation Programme, the Social Investment Package, the Social Business Initiative, and the European Structural and Investment Funds). Looking at policy instruments and processes implemented in the context of Europe 2020, one can identify a varied set of resources offered to support and promote social innovation, including financial resources, visibility and reputational resources, and cognitive and networking resources. Furthermore, some attempts have been made to create synergies between available policy instruments and to strengthen coordination between the various Commission’s DGs that take action on social innovation.

Yet, differences concerning the concrete understanding of the concept between the various DGs (and the focus of the initiatives implemented) persist, with each DG interpreting it in a way closer to its mandate. On the one hand, a ‘social entrepreneurial’ view emphasising the growth-enhancing role of social innovation prevails in DG Enterprise and Industry and DG Internal Market. On the other hand, in DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (DG EMPL) social innovation is primarily conceived as a tool for reforming welfare policies and a peculiar notion – ‘social policy innovation’ – has been gradually developed and integrated into the EU social policy toolbox. This is a methodology for testing on a small scale policy reforms in line with policy orientations defined at the EU level (notably, in the Social Investment Package and through the European Semester Country-Specific Recommendations), with the goal of upscaling the most successful experiments through the European Funds.

Social innovation and the Europe 2020 anti-poverty toolkit: a preliminary assessment

Recent initiatives on social innovation undertaken by DG EMPL entail both opportunities and risks. First, linking social innovation to the reform of national social policies and concentrating a number of resources on such a purpose may increase the likelihood that the EU will have an impact on those reforms. However, the fact that socially innovative projects funded through the call for tenders on social policy innovation must follow the approach and the priorities defined at the EU level may prevent support for genuinely bottom-up ideas and out of the box innovations, leading to a situation of ‘constrained social innovation’. Secondly, in relevant EU documents, social innovation is often associated with the need to improve the efficiency of social policies in a context characterised by budget constraints and to mobilise private resources to finance welfare provisions. This may lead to a narrow interpretation of the concept, which could be possibly interpreted as the need to ‘do more with less’ resources or as a way to deprive public authorities of responsibilities for welfare provisions, by shifting this burden to private/third sector actors.

This article is based on Sabato S., B. Vanhercke and G. Verschraegen (2015),
The EU framework for social innovation – Between entrepreneurship and policy experimentation, ImPRovE Working Paper No. 15/21. Antwerp: Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy – University of Antwerp. The research for this paper has benefited from financial support by the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2012-2016) under grant agreement n° 290613 (ImPRovE: Poverty Reduction in Europe: Social Policy and Innovation;



Bureau of European Policy Advisers – BEPA (2010), Empowering People, Driving Change, Social Innovation in the European Union

European Commission (2010), Communication from The Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions – The European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion: A European framework for social and territorial cohesion

Sabato S., B. Vanhercke and G. Verschraegen (2015), The EU framework for social innovation – Between entrepreneurship and policy experimentation, ImPRovE Working Paper No. 15/21. Antwerp: Herman Deleeck Centre for Social Policy – University of Antwerp