The rise of European cities as ‘engines of growth’ has seen them radically transformed in recent years, but often with the side-effect of increasing inequality and falling social cohesion as exemplified by riots in London and Paris. Against the background of increasing social problems, Annette Zimmer and Andrea Walter argue that social innovations might help eliminate social inequalities by offering flexible support, strengthening self-help and, first and foremost, empowering local authorities to rebalance their local welfare policies. But scaling-up and transferring social innovations to many local settings all over Europe requires a deeper understanding of how social innovations work and how they can be made sustainable. 

Symptoms may vary, but the diagnosis throughout Europe is clear: European cities are transforming. Urban centres increasingly cater for the rich and powerful, while simultaneously neglecting those who need support and solidarity. The new trend to perceive cities as “growth machines” comes with many negative side-effects. Amongst those, social inequality – and hence the breakdown of social cohesion – counts most prominently. But fighting social inequality is not an easy task, and recent events, such as the riots in the U.K. or the outbreak of violence in the suburbs of Paris, give us a first hint of what might come in the near future if cities do not intensify their efforts to strengthen social cohesion. For sure, cities have to act now. It is primarily Europe’s local welfare systems – which are very traditional regimes, dating back to the last quarter of the 19th century – that are challenged by those most recent developments. But how can cities cope with these challenges? How can social exclusion and social diversification be stopped? What can be done? And which new ideas and concepts are on the table?

Rioting in London August 2011 – Credit: Beacon Radio (Creative Commons NC)

Against this background, social innovations are a great source of hope. Social scientists as well as policy experts perceive them as avenues towards an improvement of social cohesion in Europe. Indeed, the European Commission has already taken up the idea: Social innovations are seen as providing valuable opportunities to cope with social problems at the local level by offering fresh ideas and new concepts that are ready to be put into practice. But what is a social innovation? How does it work? And why are social innovations particularly relevant for the local level?

First of all, when local citizens, policymakers or representatives of public administration initiate and develop something new, inspiring and progressive, this can be considered as a social innovation. The local dimension is important for social innovation. Despite the fact that there are many different definitions of this new phenomenon, there are two characteristics that stand for “innovation”: First, innovations always add something new and unusual to their specific context. Secondly, they add significantly – also in terms of “effectiveness” or “efficiency” – to the current state of affairs in a specific setting or policy field. Innovation might relate to a new product, a different procedure or a different mode of financing. But despite their variety, innovations always have something in common: at the very heart of any innovation is the prime aim of improving the social dimension at the local level. Social innovation translates into a further advancement of community life.

The need for social innovation in community life becomes more obvious if one takes a closer look at specific policy fields. Unemployment, and in particular unemployment of young people, is steadily increasing in Europe. In big cities such as Barcelona, Birmingham or Lille, it is becoming more and more difficult for young people to find a decent job and hence to start their adult life. Childcare constitutes another policy area which has become a top issue on the political agenda. Single parents – mostly women – are in urgent need of childcare facilities; without these, they are not able to work. But local governments have been very reluctant – due to many reasons – to invest in childcare, and parents who are not so well-to-do are very often unable to afford it. They further lose out because the jobs that they are able to get are not related to their career. Finally, women with a migrant background have to face multiple problems. Finding an affordable apartment might be a challenge; they often have to accept “odd” jobs; and it is sometimes very difficult for them to get a place for their child(ren) in a childcare facility. Again, big cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin or Milan have not yet managed to successfully integrate migrants with heterogeneous cultural backgrounds and specific needs.

The WILCO project (, which is funded by the European Union, is all about researching and investigating social innovations. The project aims to examine, through cross-national comparative research, how local welfare systems favour social cohesion. Special attention is paid to the missing link between innovations at the local level and their successful transfer and implementation to other settings.

About 80 innovations have already been identified, researched and analysed in twenty cities, in ten European countries. There are similarities but also striking differences in the way the various cities analysed try to cope with current problems of social exclusion and deteriorating life chances. Networking and bringing people together constitutes an important element of social innovation. This is for example the case in “family centres”, which definitely help to make the reconciliation of work and child-rearing easier, in particular for single mothers. The centres specifically empower families at risk and help them cope with their difficulties. Community centres are another impressive example. Again, networking and empowering people in need, encouraging them to take care of themselves, to support their neighbours and to get trained for employment are core ideas of this innovation.

All in all, the results of the WILCO project show that social innovations are an effective tool to address social inequalities: They provide new instruments, procedures and tools, beyond bureaucracy and the rigidness of the market. They encompass many stakeholders amongst citizens, representatives of the local government and members of the business community. They stand for sustainability, by providing tools which are fit for the future.

However, if Europe’s cities want to learn from each other, a deeper understanding is needed of how social innovations at the local level actually work. This is the definite precondition for scaling-up social innovations. We need knowledge in order to be able to transfer social innovations to other local contexts. A “copy-and-paste” approach will definitely not work, because innovations are always locally embedded in a specific local culture and a local welfare tradition. But in-depth analysis of case studies will provide us with the knowledge of how to improve local welfare regimes through social innovations. Hence the WILCO project will contribute to the advancement of Europe by providing tools to fight social exclusion in European cities.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Annette Zimmer University of Münster, Germany
Annette Zimmer is Professor of Social Policy and Comparative Politics at the Department of Political Science at the University of Münster. She is one of the Principal Investigators of the EU-funded WILCO project, “Welfare innovations at the local level in favour of cohesion” (7th Framework Programme of the European Commission), and the head of the WILCO team at the University of Münster.

Andrea WalterUniversity of Münster, Germany
Andrea Walter is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Politics at the University of Münster. She works as a researcher in the WILCO project. Her research interests include the mechanisms of local governance, civil society and participation as well as methods of qualitative research.

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