Even strong welfare states need social (re)invention

Artiklen er skrevet af Mathias Bruhn Lohmann og udgivet på Social Innovation Exchange 4. juni 2014.

As part of the SIX Nordic network, Social+ are continuously taking part in the debate about how social innovation can contribute to the future development of the Danish and Nordic welfare system. Recently, new insights on this matter were brought forward in the book “Creating welfare together: better solutions with social innovation”. The book investigates the potential role of social innovation within a strong welfare state like the one in Denmark and other Nordic countries.

In a follow-up podcast, co-author of the book, John René Keller Lauritzen, emphasized that we, in the Nordic countries, have a unique potential to be frontrunners in the field of social innovation since our welfare model is built on trust, social security and equality, local citizenship and high volunteer engagement. According to John we obviously need to keep developing the field of social innovation, but, as our countries face a very different reality than others, John also encouraged us to spread the Nordic perspectives on the field to the wider global community, since this point of view is often missing. This is an attempt to accommodate his request by introducing our perspective on the (big) questions: ‘How can social innovation contribute to the future development of the Danish and Nordic welfare system? How can we improve our society and better the life-conditions for vulnerable and marginalized people in a country where social problems have usually been regarded as a public sector issue? In what ways should social innovation contribute in a strong welfare system like the Danish?’.

Social innovation is not just for social entrepreneurs
As John mentions in the podcast, the European and Global debate about social innovation is often focusing narrowly on creating social innovation outside the public sector. It often seems like social innovation is only for individual social entrepreneurs. John disagrees with this – and so do we.

Looking towards the Nordic region it is clear, that social innovation is not just something that happens outside the public sector. The public sector plays an important role. In Social+ we are concerned about the process of and approach to social innovation – whether it is done by public, private or third sector organizations. There is a need to pay far more attention to social experimentation across sectors. We need to create good R&D inspired experiments to test and develop ideas, social inventions and social innovation. Now – what do we mean by that?

Need for social experimentation 
Social innovation is essentially new ideas (products, services and models) that are realized and solves a social challenge in a better or more effective way than existing social services or systems. Social innovation creates social value. The innovation process, where new ideas become reality, is of course necessary in order for an initiative to have any social impact. But what often seems to happen is an unfavorable rush from a vague idea towards the innovation process that ends up leaving out the clarification and experimentation process. Social innovation is spreading and developing at a fast pace, which is of course wonderful and important. But in order to make social innovation a long-term success story with potential to scale, spread and create systemic change, it is crucial that we take the necessary time to mature and qualify our ideas – and make them ready for realization and scaling.

This phase – between idea and innovation – is what we call the phase of social invention. The process is illustrated in the figure below (inspired by Young Foundations social innovation model).


Realizing an idea makes perfect sense as long as you have good indications that the realization will actually create social value. Unfortunately, way too many innovations are left to uncertainty and chance – resulting in numerous short-term development projects and large pools of time and funding spent without results. Successful and groundbreaking social innovation with potential for systemic change can only be created if we allow the necessary time to be spent on the social invention process, with high priority given to thorough research, clarification and experimentation. This entails a long developmental process; where we continuously test our social hypothesis, evaluate the project on an ongoing basis, and where we learn from our mistakes – and dare to let others learn from them as well! Building the right ‘invention recipe’ (with a clear step-by-step guide and description of the various ‘ingredients’ in our up-coming social innovation) is critical in order to succeed in the innovation process – and even more important, if we want to be able to spread and scale the most successful social innovations.

Like all European countries, Denmark is facing great societal challenges that must be dealt with in order to maintain the high level of welfare in the future. But with a public sector under increased financial pressure there is only little room for developing and implementing new welfare models. And even when this happens, priority and preference is often given to already proven initiatives or methods. The problem is, we need new solutions and there can be no proof of concept without new experimentation. Thus, in order to meet the unmet needs of society, the willingness to experiment with social inventions must be strengthened on all levels (financial, political and entrepreneurial).

Social invention is a not-yet-realized groundbreaking initiative that differs radically from existing initiatives in the field and holds a great potential of changing and improving our society. But it is also a mindset, an approach and a critical phase prior to the innovation process, where clarification and experimentation results in valuable knowledge – and better and more effective social innovations in the end. In other words: social invention and experimentation, in public as well as third and private sector, is key if social innovation is to contribute to new and better solutions to the social challenges we are facing in the Nordic region.