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Social Innovation: What´s behind the City Scene?

24 November 2014

Cities increasingly face multiple and wicked issues and have fewer resources to tackle them. The traditional governance model struggles to address these issues and its limits reveal the need for a new governance culture.


This article comes from the URBACT workstream “Social innovation in cities” and investigates the way social innovation has been catalysed in some cities together with a governance structural change, based on integrated, participatory and co-production approaches.



A challenging context

Cities face more and more complex and deep-rooted social, economic and environmental issues. Demographic decline, threats to economic development and competitiveness, growing social polarisation, climate change and the depletion of natural resources are amongst the most striking. At the same time, their finances have also been affected by the crisis, often cited as a Perfect Storm of rising needs and declining resources.

Some cities have found that, more and more, they cannot address these issues by doing what they have done in the past through traditional models of governance. The focus around single organisational or agency remits, relying on the deployment of resources over which leaders and managers have direct authority, and the rigidity of this top-down governance models have had their limits exposed.  Consequently, there is a growing acknowledgment in many cities that new governance models are required.

As such, social innovation, intended here as new value creation models mainly based on human talents and resources is a means to problem-solving and solutions identification, aligned to the implementation of new governance processes in cities. Its characteristics are collaboration and empowerment of all involved stakeholders, and the use of new tools such as IT and online resources. The previous URBACT workstream on Social innovation and Youth identified that cities need to evolve new services alongside their citizens by becoming catalysts and innovation brokers. That workstream underlined the need for new leadership models and the implementation of appropriate ecosystems supporting social innovation.


Public lab

Social innovation has indeed been used in some cities worldwide, and includes cases which are now internationally recognised as being effective in trying out new approaches to solving problems. The city of Medellin in Colombia is one of these examples: long known for high inequalities and crime rates, the city became an award-winner for its innovation and urban design. It has transformed its urban and social landscape, the first step of which was the construction of a Metrocable integrating isolated neighbourhoods into the remainder of the city. It has also regenerated some urban areas, recovered public spaces and built cultural and education infrastructures: these are believed to be key to the city’s transformation and the enabler of citizens’ increased participation in urban life. As a result, the city has become safer, less polluted, with less traffic, and greater social inclusion.

Seoul, in South Korea, is another example.  Since his election in 2011 (and 2014 re-election), Seoul's mayor Won Soon Park has encouraged citizen participation and an atmosphere of open dialogue: for his initial election campaign he used social media to communicate and listen to the needs of the citizens. As a mayor he developed a multi-channel platform to communicate openly about policy-making processes, enabling citizens to provide feedback on a real-time basis. This involved institutions created for the social activities of the city directly under his office (the Social Innovation Bureau and the Public Communication Bureau). He has also encouraged social enterprises that use innovative methods to tackle social problems, and has expanded collaboration between government, the private sector and civil society. 


Through cross-sector innovation, Seoul is involving all stakeholders, for example through: 

• The Simincheong, located in Seoul City Hall: a “speaker’s corner” for anyone who wants to send a video message to the city administration;

• The Hope Institute’s civil creative programs: where citizens’ ideas are turned into policies; 

• The Seoul Innovation Planning Division: to showcase initiatives of social innovation in cities around the world and research how to apply them in the local context.

This approach has enabled the city to create large social achievements in a relatively short time in a large and complex city, while also maximizing the city’s resources and budget.


Seoul’s Mayor Won Soon Park approach to city governance

What these two examples show is that social innovation can be used to effectively address urban issues, with little economic resources and enhanced democratic participation.


However, these examples should not hide the fact that many city authorities are still ‘feeling their way’ and trying to adapt their approach to problem solving. Not all cities are confident and comfortable about a governance change and the URBACT programme is playing a key role in relation to this: it fosters exchange of practices for improved sustainable management of cities and provides the baseline for collaboration and the sharing of fresh thinking on common problems. At a time when there are increasing EU resources to support social innovation activity, this URBACT role is particularly valuable. This workstream is part of this approach.

What lies behind the practices of cities using social innovation? What does that imply in terms of local governance? How do municipal governments adjust their functioning, organization and culture? What new roles should municipalities assume and which spaces should they create? These are some of the questions we seek to address in this article.


Engaging administration staff and stakeholders

One way of using social innovation in city governance has been in increasing ‘participation’. Participation in city governance, indeed, has been promoted for many years to different extents: through consultations or the development of ad hoc activities where administration staff, citizens or stakeholders could feel that they were not only informed but also heard. Some cities have innovated in going beyond simple participatory processes towards more elaborated approaches to engage stakeholders.

This should first start with the city administration itself. Moving away from a hierarchical decision-making and problem-solving system, some municipalities have opened up the policy process to their staff, outside the strictly political level. They have developed holistic approaches and methodology in order to ensure that for a given problem, staff can learn from experiences of other sectors, enhance their knowledge, and move from problems to solutions.


This has been the experience of Malmö, in Sweden, in the healthcare and elderly care sectors. Discussions and exchanges brought together civil servants and politicians: the variety of perspectives coming from the different fields of work of participants enriched the dialogue, design and implementation of local policies for elderly. As a result, the working approach has been adopted by other levels of government and the administration of Malmo South is currently running more innovative projects for elderly compared to other city areas.


Integrated and systemic approaches have also led to learning across sectors. The municipality of Gdansk, in Poland, has been successful in creating a working group defining the agenda for education. When dealing with education and social issues, the municipality acknowledged the need for transversal policy-making: “deprived areas, preparation of pupils and students for adulthood and the job market, the adaptation of schools not only to the highly changing needs of the schoolchildren, but to the whole local community, where inhabitants can find their place and become more active”, as mentioned by Piotr Kowalczuk from the city of Gdansk. As such, an informal think tank was created 5 years ago: 15 civil servants worked over 2 years on the definition of common values, on converting the social aid into a social development policy and working on a cultural change process to integrate citizens and stakeholders’ perspectives into governance.


This process led to a shift in the integration of citizens in problem solving. Also, in policy terms, education became a top priority for the city from 2012 onwards and some of the members of the think-tank were integrated into the city administration staff.


There are many cities like Gdansk that have involved citizens and stakeholders in the design and implementation of new services. This requires creating new synergies between administration and stakeholders, sharing and benefiting from each others’ experiences, as well as cooperating on concrete projects, sharing tasks and responsibilities.


Through cooperation and co-creation, and up to co-responsibility, a whole new system has come to life in some cities, making a 'micro-society' in itself, a working and more sustainable system within the wider society.  Furthermore, beyond connecting stakeholders from different and separate arenas, some public authorities have tried to settle relationships between them, at the same time embedding social and environmental values. This has been the aim of the URBACT TOGETHER network which has addressed cities’ challenges from the identification of needs from citizens themselves at the same time empowering them in the implementation of solutions (see box).

URBACT TOGETHER network and co-responsibility of actors 

From 2010 to 2013, 8 European cities within the framework of the URBACT TOGETHER network have promoted the idea of co-responsibility of actors (public authorities, companies, associations, citizens, etc.) in order to ensure well-being for all and to avoid situations of exclusion. The network was successful in using a methodology – SPIRAL , developed by the Council of Europe based on material criteria (such as monetary ones) and immaterial (such as attitudes and images and prejudices) criteria to define paths towards the well-being of all - where the service users took responsibility for and helped to shape and organise the service that they themselves use.

During focus groups, participants, coming from all spheres of society, assessed what they considered ‘ well-being’ and ‘ ill-being’. Municipalities kept an open-minded approach, allowing ideas to arise instead of pre-defining existing problems and solutions, shedding light on the concerns of citizens, from a multidimensional perspective. The replies served as the basis for pilot actions in each partner city.

Each municipality had a different experience of citizens’ involvement; however, at the end of the project they all presented their approaches to integrating co-responsibility in their future actions, one step further.

In Mulhouse, France, this approach led to a multi-party social contract, whereby families receiving social benefits commit to a programme of activity which they co-designed themselves. In Kavala, Greece, a Social Pharmacy centre was created drawing on the wider engagement of professionals in offering a new type of health service accessible to the broader public. There was a high focus on the poorest sections of the population. A last example is that of Dębica, Poland, where the project consolidated a pre-existing large scale scheme involving citizens through workshops and seminars, which had an impact on the wider development of the town strategy and saw the emergence of public-private partnerships.  



First Conclusions: Towards a new governance culture 

Through a few examples we can see that the integration of social innovation implies a shift from command and control to brokering and engagement between all players, stimulating social initiatives and creativity within the public sector. In the cases observed here, city governance has become less directive and more participative and co-produces with stakeholders and communities.

This clearly means that some cities’ governance model has been disrupted. Where does thisdisruption come from? It seems that in some cases, the drivers for these changes come from the top: an explicit leadership shift seems to be crucial to ignite the process and drive culture change. In other cities the drive is more bottom up, from civil servants themselves or civil society. In any case, this culture change has been enabled with the upcoming of a new city ecosystem, creating the space for and re-envisaging the relationships between all actors.


For sure, addressing existing city challenges with the use of social innovation requires aculture change: this includes building the capacity of all involved actors, including the development of adequate skills, attitudes, and mentality.


Leaders need to adjust their strategies, adopt new positions and act as a 'chef d'orchestre': listening to stakeholders, animating the local governing system, playing the role of interpreters between local players, translating between different players and cultural languages, raising mutual interests and synergies, and, building a culture of trust.

Leaders should also be ready to go beyond their comfort zones, take risks, experiment and be prepared to learn from (unavoidable) mistakes.

This URBACT workstream will investigate further those questions through case studies, chat sessions, meetings and a final report to be published early 2015.


Although it is crucial for each municipality to generate ideas, it is also key to create synergies and mutualise on existing ones.  As such, we are keen on sharing with and drawing from experiences from all relevant actors: city administrators, urban planners as well as experts.  Our website presents the information the workstream has gathered so far and is (aligned with the principles of social innovation outlined here) a platform open to your contributions.


If you want to know more about the new urban economies, read full article in the URBACT Tribune 2014 and follow the workstream on Twitter @URBACT #SocInn


Read more:

The URBACT Tribune 2014 – URBACT publication

URBACT Capitalisation - URBACT website