The challenge of generating socially innovative territories: a matter of learning

Miren ESTENSORO, Researcher in Orkestra-Basque Institute of Competitiveness

Although technological and organizational innovation in firms is considered by mainstream literature as the core of economic development processes, new approaches focused on the different dimensions and aims of innovation processes have opened a new framework (Moulaert and Nussbaumer, 2008). This new framework has given rise to the development of the social innovation approach.

According to Moulaert and Nussbaumer (2008) it is not possible to consider the value of economic development processes without the comprehension of the social and spatial reality where these processes are developed. Moreover, the actual financial crisis has shown that the “free-market” logic for development is totally limited and unsustainable (Krugman, 2009; Stiglitz, 2010). Therefore, the lack of social cohesion and equality is one of the main challenges of the actual society (Fitoussy, 2004). One of the main arguments here is that Territorial Innovation Models (such as the learning approach1 or concepts like innovations systems2 and innovation modes3) fall into the instrumentality of institutions (and “intangible” elements in general) and are limited to underline their value and utility for improving the market-competitiveness of the local economy. This shows that beyond the marked-based economic ontology an alternative approach for development is more essential than ever. The social innovation approach (based on the perspectives developed by authors like Moulaert, Nussbaumer, Sekia, MacCalumm, Martinelli, González, etc.), although it cannot be substitutive of government regulation, coordination and redistribution, provides that alternative approach and gives opportunity to overcome these new challenges from a community-based perspective.

Likewise, it must be considered that in recent years, vertically directed interventions from the public sectors are transiting towards more flexible and multidimensional modes where the integration of civil society or public-private collaboration frameworks are facilitated (Moulaert and Nussbaumer, 2005; Estensoro and Zurbano, 2010). This means to break with traditional intervention modes to advance towards innovation processes framed into new governance modes. Social innovation is defined in this context as innovation in governance relations for the satisfaction of needs and consequently, it sets innovation in collaboration modes as a central point in development processes. In this sense, it is related to the evolutionist approach to local development.

Photo: CC BY - Radio Saig?n

It must be considered that in recent years, vertically directed interventions from the public sectors are transiting towards more flexible and multidimensional modes.
Photo: CC BY - Radio Saigón

The interaction processes facilitated through the local networks promoted by Local Development Agencies in the Basque Country (Azaro Fundazioa in Lea Artibai, Lehiberri in Tolosaldea, Ezagutza Gunea in Azpeitia-Azkoitia, Lankidetza Sarea in Goierri, etc.), answer to new institutional conditions looking for technological and organizational innovation in local firms. These are auto-managed networking processes where local actors participate (local government, firms, firm associations, technology transference organizations, training centres, social agents, etc.) in learning processes and shared sense making to develop local strategies for development. This means that local networks, beyond facilitating firm-based innovation, permit to develop innovative local governance modes. This shows their potential for understanding and answering the needs of local actors through more inclusive and sustainable modes based on new social and power relations, basic for social innovation.

The analysis in depth of these local networks permit to identify what critical elements characterize networking processes that facilitate the generation of innovative governance modes for social innovation. Among these elements the potential for collaboration (defined here as the collective action answering common aims) and the capacity to generate shared leadership processes (Karlsen and Larrea, 2012) must be underlined. Moreover, the local institutional capacity (density of local institutions for development and the collaboration level between them) and the consideration of the multilevel perspective (referring to how different territorial levels are articulated) also condition to emerge and develop innovative local governance modes. A comparison analysis according to these factors permits to conclude which of these networks are more innovative from the social innovation perspective. Among these Azaro Fundazioa in Lea Artibai, Ezagutza Gunea in Azpeitia-Azkoitia and Polo de Competitividad in Durangaldea must be highlighted. These three networks have developed the conditions permitting to advance faster on the elements described before and consequently, they are facilitating the generation of socially innovative territories.

These conclusions and arguments uncover a discussion field around the role of political agents and the role of these networks as policy networks (Benz and F?rst, 2002), taking into account that they permit the collaboration between territorial agents for policy-making in territorial development issues. Besides, this permit to underline the value of the local level where the advantages of territorial proximity are maximized and where networks and collaboration scenarios between social and economic actors carry knowledge adhered to the territory (Estensoro and Zurbano, 2010). Moreover, the critical dinamizator role that these agencies can play to generate socially innovative territories must be underlined. This means to go beyond their traditional service provider role to foster self-managed networks of public and private actors at the local level. Likewise, the analysis of that new role shows how network managers in these processes condition networking processes. The type of knowing of these managers influences and consequently, guides the learning process of participants and the development model promoted through the network. This sets out new questions for discussion such as, what capabilities must have the professionals working on these agencies? What training should they receive? Is the training offer in the Basque Country enough? Is it suitable?

After all, the evolution of these local networks from the social innovation perspective results from a learning process. That learning process is influenced by the capabilities of participants. The evolution as socially innovative territories occurs through the combination of suitable knowing and capabilities and consequently, the knowing of participants must support that purpose. In that sense, how can social researchers contribute to these learning processes? How can they facilitate the generation of social innovation processes for territorial development? This contribution can differ depending on the engagement level of the researcher in these learning processes and it is maximized when action research processes are activated. This invites to reflect around the differences between the researcher participating as a passive observer and the engaged researcher (Levin and Ravn, 2007). The possibility for being engaged on networking processes such as the ones described before, permit to conclude that through action research processes social researchers can act as facilitators of learning processes. Learning processes, as the social innovation approach underlines (Moulaert and Nussbaumer, 2008), can permit to participants to develop capabilities for tackling their needs and problems and in this sense, they can facilitate the empowerment of local actors for auto-managed territorial development processes. This means that beyond being facilitators of learning, an engaged researcher can facilitate social innovation processes for territorial development.

Photo: CC BY - gonalvmar

The analysis in depth of these local networks permit to identify what critical elements characterize networking processes that facilitate the generation of innovative governance modes for social innovation.
Photo: CC BY - gonalvmar

This also means that an active involvement of researchers in problem solving processes with local actors accelerates the contribution of social research for social change and facilitates to understand it (Lewin, 1943; Greenwood and Levin, 2007). At the same time, it requires the researcher to combine the best scientific practice with a commitment to supporting democratic transformation of society to overcome the challenges or problems of practitioners or local actors. Obviously, all this forces the researcher to re-consider the scientific practice and its validity criteria.


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