Contrary to European views, in the Netherlands social innovation is interpreted primarily as innovation in the workplace, or smarter working. Europe uses a broader definition. The Guide to Social Innovation (European Commission 2013) includes the following definition of social innovation: ‘The development and implementation of new ideas (products, services and models) to meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations’. Therefore the Netherlands has no active progressive social innovation policy, as opposed to other countries like the United Kingdom. Of course the lack of policy in this field does not mean that there are no examples of social innovation in this wider sense to be found in the Netherlands. And the attention for social innovation in the Netherlands is increasing.
A recently published report by the Dutch Advisory Council for Science and Technology Policy states that social innovation contributes to vitality, to the urge for experimentation, innovative revenue models and active involvement in the common good. So it is of great importance to the Netherlands. The report describes social innovation as ‘a generic term for contemporary initiatives of people and organisations aiming at innovative solutions for social issues.’ Social innovations start with people and organisations which have identified a social issue and agree to try to solve it. This could develop into a broader initiative with many parties and persons – for instance citizens, entrepreneurs and academics. It could be a local initiative, but also a complex collaboration structure at national or international level. The term social innovation emphasizes processes and activities of an innovative character. It relates to the approach of sticky issues which call for creativity without a clear idea in which direction to go to solve them and without a ready-made effective approach at hand.
Dutch government policy is dealing with a shift from government to citizens. The emphasis is on the strength of citizens. Citizens can do a lot themselves, and when they can’t, the informal network (family and volunteers) should be the first to offer support. The social professional or government service is only addressed in the last instance. In addition to an ideological vision (we have based our policy on citizens’ limitations for too long, let us look at their opportunities instead), of course the economic crisis also plays a role in this shift.
There is another important concept in the Netherlands that is closely related to social innovation: the so-called “action democracy”, implying that everything that people are able to do themselves, does not need to take place through the detour of parliamentary democracy. It concerns everything that people can establish in their own environment to solve social issues. Action democracy in this sense is a form of co-decision simply by taking action, by dealing with concrete issues in the public domain, individually or together with public institutions. Of course this suits the withdrawing government. Libraries or community centres for instance could be managed by citizens. They can take responsibility for public green spaces. The concept is related to social innovation, although the latter goes further, knows more stakeholders and relies on innovative solutions. Action democracy focuses primarily on local, simple and small-scale forms of social innovation, on networks of individual citizens taking up tasks that governments leave to be. Complex and (international) large-scale forms of collaboration between various organisations, enterprises, governments and citizens are not really within its remit. Enterprises (with the exception of social cooperatives) rarely take part.
Dutch examples of social innovation
An interesting Dutch example of action democracy is Je Eigen Stek (Your Own Place), a self-managed housing arrangement for and by previously homeless people. Je Eigen Stek houses people with varied backgrounds. Some of them have lived on the street for decades. Others only recently had to turn to the streets owing to the crisis. Residents use their own experiences and expertise, increasing and strengthening their own skills and self-esteem. Two professional social workers have been recruited by the residents to support and facilitate self-management. Their work is directed by the needs and the demands of the residents. In this TEDxDelft movie one of the residents, Jamal Mechbal, tells about Je Eigen Stek.
We also have social innovation examples involving more actors. In the small municipality Peel en Maas partners created a “strengthening well-being” network that allows so-called extremely vulnerable people to have a meaningful role by exploring their own wishes, demands and opportunities. Clients and local community (residents, social services organisations and enterprises) explore together what is possible and what is necessary. Vulnerable people are participating again, for instance in a primary school or in a bakery. They gain self-esteem and contribute to society. The results of this joint approach show social added value and financial savings. A clear win-win.
We are in the middle of an irreversible passage from an old to a new economy. We are facing huge social challenges. Old solutions have lost their power. Social innovation can contribute to innovative solutions and may challenge us to find new relations between citizens, markets and governments. We recommend that the Dutch government prioritises, adopts and encourages social innovation in line with Europe.