Social Innovation in the UK: A View From The Outside

Social Innovation in the UK: A View From The Outside

22.10.2013 Blog

This blogpost has been written by Lubomir Billy.

Before I left Slovakia for my internship in the UK, my family and friends were asking me what I would do there. Learning, gaining contacts and information in the field of social innovation, I replied. “Social innovation? And what is that?” Their question sums up this concept’s status in my home country. The term is unknown, though I would argue it happens in practice. As I discussed in my previous blog post, Slovakia has numerous inspiring ideas and projects ready to be exported to the world, and vice versa. As a country with a progressive developing social innovation field, the UK should be an example of the direction our own social innovation field could be heading in a the years to come.

The world of social innovation in the UK is a few years ahead thanks to the attitude of the central government, numerous organisations serving as intermediaries in providing support for social enterprises and entrepreneurs, widespread donor interest, and investment in research in this field. Many aspects are comparable with those in Slovakia, but there are notable differences as well. While in Slovakia the term charity is perceived as an organisation providing selfless help for socially disadvantaged people; in the UK the term has wider connotations and can be used for the organisations backing other social enterprises by mentoring, funding and consulting. In the Slovak Republic the third sector (which can be used as synonym for the social innovation field) is represented by nongovernmental organisations – foundations, non-profit organisations and civic associations, which have been active despite decreasing funding and increasing bureaucratic barriers. In Slovakia these organisations are mainly funded by the assignation mechanism, receiving 2 % of taxes of natural and legal persons. Donors, various grants programmes of the ministries, EU finances, CSR, and local government funding all play a role as well. The big difference is in the use of the term social enterprise. While here in the UK, many initiatives are comfortable calling themselves social enterprises, in Slovakia this term was used for the enterprises subsidized by the central government to create an organisation employing at least 30 % of workers from disadvantaged groups. After a series of scandals with misused finances and non-existent enterprises, this concept and term gained a bad reputation that has proven difficult to remove.

Yet despite the differences in the field of social innovation  in the UK and Slovakia, there are some parallels. Although our countries are different in terms of economy, demography and social affairs, we share some of the same critical problems that you find in many countries, such as elder care, integration of ex-prisoners, and childhood obesity. This means there is a potential knowledge exchange to be had between our two countries, sharing innovative solutions to our common challenges. Addtionally, the British funding model may be an inspiration for Slovakia, given our struggles with austerity measures and the need to search for new sources and approaches.

The benefit of an internship like mine lies not only in gaining an overview and making contacts, but also in getting ideas and best practice examples to be disseminated at home. It can simultaneously foster interest in social enterprise and innovation and draw attention to its current status in the home country. Any activity in this field is welcome and needed, as social innovation continues to impact both national and world economies at greater and greater levels.

This blog was conducted within the project “Learn from the Best” which has been funded with support from the European Commission within the LLP – Mobility (PLM). This blog reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein. 

Photo credit: Peater Pearson via Flickr