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For the past seven years, there have been more than 40 social innovation projects funded by the EU. Between 2014 and 2020, the European Commission (EC)’s Directorate-General for Employment and Social Affairs (DG EMPL) launched 7 calls for proposals focused on social experimentation under the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI).

Over the years, member organisations of the European Social Network (ESN) have benefited from this funding to promote innovation in social services. For instance, in Andalucía (Spain) the EC funded RESISOR, which was the starting point for the integrated social history in the region. ESTI@ in Athens (Greece) created an integrated set of employment and social services for some of the most vulnerable in the city. In Kortrijk (Belgium) a new professional figure and outreach programme was designed to help improve take up of social services amongst some of the most vulnerable resident families.

The two key components of these social innovation programmes funded by the EU included the conditions to put in place a new programme and the delivery of an experimentation to help compare its results with service delivery ‘as usual’. When we speak about social innovation, we usually talk of finding social solutions to social problems, involving a novelty element and the measurement of its impact. 

On 10-11 May, the European Commission organised a closing conference in Brussels to present and celebrate the achievements of the 44 projects that were granted funding and were piloted across Europe. These calls have been organised and funded by DG EMPL to promote innovation in social and related services. ESN is pleased that many of these projects have been led by our members, and we ourselves have been or are currently partnered within various projects.

However, we have seen how the focus on social innovation has been slowly shifting from an innovation and practice focus to a more theoretical one. While evaluation needs to be embedded in the design of social innovation, experimentations need to be rooted in practice and focused on improving social service planning and delivery. We are very much aware of the need to promote these practice-led innovative approaches, and will feature pioneering partnerships, technology-led, and new organisational and participatory methods at our 30th European Social Services Conference.

Speaking to ESN members who participated at the conference I found out that they would only apply if the calls to innovate relate to challenges identified within their strategic planning. Co-design and co-production with people using social services and with professionals is key to guarantee that unmet social needs are properly addressed. This implies the need for flexibility, openness and living participatory approaches.

While we often look for standard indicators and conditions for evaluation, transfer and upscaling of pilot projects, the truth is that when it comes to innovation we should always ask what works, for whom and in what circumstances, and the answer may vary significantly between experimentations. Therefore, ensuring that social innovation and experimentation is rooted in practice is key to guarantee its success