EFI researcher Carmen Rodríguez writes about wrapping up the SIMRA project during the state of emergency. What can we say about social innovation now?

The SIMRA project is an H2020 project on social innovation that ran from March 2016 until March 2020. Its overarching goal was to advance the knowledge of social innovation in rural areas across Europe and the Mediterranean, through the systematic study of more than 20 case studies in the field of agriculture, forestry and rural development.

This post was originally going to be a summary of the SIMRA Final Conference held in February in Brussels. But the context in which I am now writing inevitably affects these reflections. I am writing from Spain, where the state of emergency was declared on 14 March over the coronavirus, placing the country in lockdown (as many other countries in Europe), ordering people to stay at home and with our health-care system bordering on collapse due to the numerous infections. I, like most people, have not been out of the house in many days other than for throwing out the trash, and have had little to no physical contact with anybody ever since the confinement started.

In this context, what was said and not said in the SIMRA Final Conference seems rather irrelevant, next to what is happening right now in the world. However, there are several elements in the social innovation field that connect directly to the crisis that we are living now worldwide, that I do feel relevant to highlight here.

The final conference (not only in SIMRA, but also in many other projects) is important for different reasons. It is the moment in which the whole consortium meets for one (sometimes last) time to look back and reflect on the journey. What have we done? How have we done it? What have we learned? The answer to these particular questions for SIMRA may be found in the various presentations from our conference in Brussels. There was, however, a main goal overriding this final conference, and the main reason why it was held in Brussels, and not in a more rural setting. The title of the conference explained it quite concisely: “From the implementation of local initiatives to the integration into public policies”. Social innovation is important for rural areas, but it will hardly make a difference on its own, if not supported by the appropriate public policies. (More on the SIMRA policy recommendations can be found here).

There are other aspects, however, a lot more subtle, that I only realized now, when I sat down to think back and reflect on the conference. By the time we met in February in Brussels, all those people in the room who were once strangers, were not any more. We know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, interests… and depending how you chose your spots in the joint lunch and dinners, you may also know their favourite beer. In the social innovation field, we call this “reconfiguring of social networks”. People who did not know each other before, with different skills, come together to achieve one particular aim, thus creating new social networks, or reinforcing pre-existing ones. Do not get me wrong; I am not saying that the mere activity of forming a consortium to work in a project constitutes a social innovation per se (you can find out more about social innovation in this blogpost), but merely saying that there are some interesting similarities, which we can learn from.

Looking closely, there are other features quite central in social innovation studies, that were also visible during our SIMRA final conference. Two of the most important ones being the co-construction processes (not one presenter finished his/her presentation without acknowledging several colleagues), and the learning processes (isn’t doing interdisciplinary research always a learning process, when you have to step out of your own comfort zone and work in a new field and/or with new people?).

Now that we are finishing the project, we find ourselves in an extraordinary situation, locked into our homes, doing everything remotely, and with a strange feeling of isolation that we do not really know how long it will last. And I can’t help but ask myself: what can social innovation teach us, in a situation like this? While I do not have an answer that is straightforward, there are aspects central to social innovation processes which are now flourishing everywhere or are at least more visible. The sense of community, for example. People are striving to strengthen their social networks, including the use of technology available, in order to fight isolation. Artists are offering live concerts from their homes. Museums are offering online free visits, and university students are offering to take care of the kids of those parents who still need to go to work. In my case, I never used to know my neighbours, and now I’m asking them if I can go shopping for them, because they are old and they should avoid going to the supermarket.

Maybe social innovation is always there, somehow. The question is whether we will remember that we have to offer adequate legal and economic support, in order to help it thrive and increase its positive impact in our communities.

This blog was originally published on MedForest
Photo: ©vegefox.com – stock.adobe.com


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