Social innovation and the social and solidarity economy

Simel Esim and Waltteri Katajamaki from the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Cooperatives Unit look at the importance of social innovation – and its role in advancing the decent work agenda within the context of the social and solidarity economy…

Social innovation is an emerging theme in the changing world of work discussions, often used in contrast with technological innovation. In the social and solidarity economy (SSE), co-operatives are taking the lead in innovation, from youth housing co-operatives and waste picker associations to elderly care co-operatives, worker co-ops with refugee members and taxi driver co-operatives.

A way we can understand social innovation in this context is through “a series of bottom-up strategic initiatives with local roots”, emphasising improvement in social relations – communication, solidarity, reciprocity, shared values and association.

We have recently listened to how platform cooperatives build social innovation with technology, bringing gig economy workers together in worker co-operatives to provide services or sell products, with collective ownership and governance by the people who depend on and participate in it using digital platforms, websites or mobile applications.

A case in point is Loomio, a web-based, open-source worker co-operative from New Zealand providing a communication and decision-making infrastructure for individuals and organisations. Its innovativeness lies in enabling collaborative decision-making and offering a space for people to interact and collaborate regardless of their geographical location.

Other online collaborative governance structures and practices are emerging for more sustainable value chain practices as well. Germany-based Fairmondo, for instance, is a co-operative online marketplace that is owned and run by its buyers, sellers, workers and investors. It sells ethically sourced products from producers and small fair trade companies including co-operatives (thus also providing an example of co-op-to-co-op trade). It is an online fair trade alternative, with transparent and fair terms, enabling users of its services to know where the products are coming from, and how they have been produced.

What is socially innovative in these examples is that they are generated through members of a collective rather than individuals per se. So the social benefits are not only in the objectives and outcomes of social innovation, but also in their communitarian and mutualistic nature and processes.

In the 2015 ILO/ITC Social and Solidarity Economy Academy of the ILO and ITC Turin, a compendium of experiences on the role of social innovation in South-South Cooperation was compiled, looking into ways in which South-South co-operation can be used for better understanding the extent of social innovation in different parts of the world.

Social innovation carries the potential to contribute to the work of the ILO and its constituents in advancing the decent work agenda. And it could be further and better integrated into the research, policy and development co-operation work of the ILO.

In research, we would need a multi-disciplinary approach to social innovation that is well grounded in locally identified needs and priority areas of action. It would be good to know, for instance, how enterprises with different governance structures fare with respect to social innovation.

In the realm of policy, ILO constituents are asking for our involvement in development of SSE legislation and policies, in countries such as South Africa, Egypt, Tunisia and Greece. And social innovation is among the key themes there for the ILO to play a catalyst role in reaching a common understanding and advancing good practices around social innovation.

Finally, in development co-operation projects, social innovation is emerging as a theme in areas such as promoting youth employment; local economic development, health and social care sectors; and migration, among others. The potential for testing different approaches to enable and allow social innovation to flourish from bottom-up is huge!

SSE is a good place to start – as we have an opportunity to do social innovation following the principles of mutuality, reciprocity and collaboration.