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Social innovation in emerging Europe: Still playing catch up

Social innovation is now widely recognised as having the ability to enhance society’s capacity to act by turning social and economic challenges into opportunities. The global map of social innovation initiatives reveals countless approaches and successful stories which show the strength and potential of social innovation in many areas, not least education and poverty reduction, addressing demographic changes and the environment.

While growing fast however, social innovation in Central and Eastern Europe lags behind much of the world. In fact, as underlined by Zoya Damianova, programme director at the Applied Research and Communications Fund, a Bulgarian innovation policy and research institute, even the term social innovation is relatively unknown across the region.

Innovative in a traditional way

According to the European Innovation Scoreboard, the innovation performance of Central and Eastern Europe is below the EU average. Sweden was the 2019 EU innovation leader, followed by Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands.

“Innovation equals future jobs and growth. I am happy to see general progress in the EU,” commented Carlos Moedas, commissioner for research, science and innovation. “Yet to stay ahead in the global race, both the EU and our member states need to continue investing and developing the right policies for innovation to flourish.”

Amongst the countries of emerging Europe, only Estonia currently boasts the status of strong innovator, the others considered merely as moderate or modest innovators, still focused on technologically-driven projects and traditional R&D activities. On average, the innovation performance of the EU has increased by 8.8 per cent since 2011, increasing the most in the Baltics (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) and decreasing the most in Romania and Slovenia.

“Technology and R&D projects were used as a tool to keep up with Western Europe,” says Uros Bulatovic, founder of the Union of Young Entrepreneurs Of Montenegro (UMPCG), an organisation which won the Emerging Europe award for the year’s best Young Empowerment Initiative. “But social innovation is maybe even more practical, sometimes less expensive and an efficient way to deal with certain issues. Policies are one of the barriers, because they don’t recognise social innovation sufficiently, and it is policies which determine funding and actions.”

A misunderstood concept

Sometimes, even innovators themselves are not aware that what they are doing could be considered social innovation. According to SI-DRIVE, a research project aimed at extending knowledge about social innovation, the term social enterprise is much used much more in Hungary than social innovation, while in Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, the term is applied in the context of social economy and social entrepreneurship.

“Social innovators are those who, through their contribution, seek to change existing paradigms, raise awareness of the role and power of the individual in society,” said Mirna Karzen, president of the Social Innovation Lab, a Croatian organisation promoting alternatives and practical solutions to address local and regional socio-economic challenges in the Western Balkans.

It is according to this definition that many of the region’s projects are born. The great majority of the social innovation initiatives deal with the provision of social services to disadvantaged and socially excluded groups. In the field of education, a number of initiatives have been focusing on improving educational outcomes by utilising the advantages of ICT technologies. Like Jumpido in Bulgaria, an educational software for primary school students that offers a new methodology of learning mathematics through a set of educational games and at the same time encourages children to engage in sporting activities.

Another area where social innovation is gaining momentum is in environmental protection, through promoting resource and energy efficiency. Sharing platforms, such as carpooling, have become more common throughout the region. Farmama, in Slovakia, is a project promoting urban farming, which publishes manuals and tips for growing, storing and using herbs, fruits and vegetables and aims at encouraging people in urban areas to farm on their balconies.

A Montenegrin solution

“Our organisation is focused on entrepreneurship of young people, because unemployment of youth is major issue,” UMPCG’s Mr Bulatovic tells Emerging Europe. “Sometimes, for young people in a modern world, it looks like they are offered countless possibilities, but in reality only a few of those are practical. Unemployment can be, or is, the source of many other social needs. Dealing with this problem is very complex, but we need to approach all of the targeted groups individually. As with most things, one universal solution probably won’t fix all the problems.”

The UMPCG encourages the true spirit of entrepreneurship by creating an environment in which young entrepreneurs can connect and support each other, thereby contributing to the development of their own businesses.

“The Union of Young Entrepreneurs was born with a goal to create a community that helps young people to reach their full potential in Montenegro. This goal triggered many others, some short-term and some long-term,” Mr Bulatovic explains.

Although it has created a community where people can exchange knowledge, contacts and opportunities, it was not easy to start the project.

“One of the main challenges we face is the limited number of suitable open calls that could help our community grow”, he adds. “We need impactful projects that can create change, spark entrepreneurship and cherish young entrepreneurs until they are sustainable and strong enough.”

Holding back

Several factors exist that foster the development of social innovation in Eastern Europe. Among them are the existing financial programmes and instruments, positive reforms in the regulatory environment for social enterprises and the strong individual leadership of innovators, who often are those initiating social innovation.

However, what is still needed in Eastern European countries is a raising of awareness about successful social innovation initiatives and the mobilisation of more volunteers. Together with the lack of funding on a national level, a lack of social and policy support for social innovation initiatives and an underdeveloped entrepreneurial culture, an unfavourable environment for the development and scaling of social innovations is created.

“Innovation is sometimes a difficult thing to process for both policy makers and the general public,” believes Mr Bulatovic. “Success stories help everyone understand the value. A practical, individual approach and transparency of projects will gain trust from all stakeholders and, of course, with more flexibility in grants and institutions, organisations will enable more such activities.”

“The lack of entrepreneurial experience, a crude regulatory environment, a small share of successful social projects, slow the progress of the social innovation sphere,” agrees Pavel Yakimenko, founder of Deti-MBA, a business school for teenagers in Belarus.

“On the other hand, the positive things are the expansion in the number of young leaders who want to make great social projects, government support and active support from international organisations and funds,” he tells Emerging Europe.

Pushing forward

“We should think about the growing generation, about young people who are the future of our country. It is in our power to make them happy and successful,” Deti-MBA’s Mr Yakimenko says. “Success may come when people do what they like and like what they do. That’s at the same time our own everyday motto. It’s impossible to do and know everything, especially now when our world is changing so rapidly and each moment is different and new. Quite often we don’t have enough time for thinking. So, how to help youngsters to find their way?”.

This is why Deti-MBA emerged as a solution to the lack of qualified education in schools. The goal of the Deti-MBA is to develop leadership skills in children in grades five to 11, giving them a creative approach to solving problems as well as developing entrepreneurial skills.

“We believe that our young generation should get a correct idea of ​​all the processes with which their further professional life will be associated. We realise that there’s a gap between Belarusian youngsters and the people of the same age in Western Europe and the US, for example. We try to change this situation.”

There is also a gap due to the mentality of some parents.

“From the very start the main challenge has been to convince parents to give their children the chance to realise business projects studying at school. Parents are sceptical as it can take a lot of time and have an impact on school marks,” Mr Yakimenko adds.

That’s why Mr Yakimenko believes that innovation is the next step for countries that want to enjoy sustainable economic growth, removing the economic difference between Western and Eastern Europe.

And the future perspective for Eastern European is positive.

“There is great untapped potential for innovation in the Central and Eastern European Member States,” said Martin Kern, the interim director of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. “We should use it to further enhance Europe’s competitiveness and our position in global innovation.”