The challenge of articulating social innovation projects from the public administration – Tatiana Fernández

Territorial innovation infography: co-design and co-creation of new solutions to societal challenges

  1. Social innovation in the public administration

Social innovation is a way of responding to societal challenges from the perspective of a systemic process in which the public administration collaborates with other players (companies, universities, civil society, etc.). Social innovation aims to generate incremental changes in human attitudes and behaviours and in relations and the distribution of power between different organisations and groups. The central elements in social innovation are processes of empowering people and collective learning, and the results are more effective public policy and improved quality of life for citizens.

The process of social innovation in the public administration involves the following four elements:

  • A process beginning with the identification of a complex social challenge with multiple dimensions in a particular environment. The challenge has various interdependent causes, and responses to it require a systemic approach that focuses on the relations between all the stakeholders involved and on making progress towards common goals.
  • A search is made for innovative, collaborative solutions that can contribute to meeting the societal challenge and generate value for society. These solutions often take the shape of services and new or improved processes, which are developed through innovative forms of interaction and collaboration among the different players in the quadrupole helix (government, companies, universities and, especially, civil society, as the final beneficiary) involved in the challenge. The solutions are not necessarily completely new, but they must be new within the context in which they are proposed.
  • Pilot projects, which are implemented and tested on a small scale, accompanied by a participatory monitoring system to measure the results and impact on the challenge.
  • If the solutions tested are effective, they can be implemented on a larger scale or be adapted and reproduced in other territories. 

  1. Requirements for ensuring that public administration innovation is transformative and generates social impact

In terms of transformation and impact, the success of social innovation promoted by the public administration depends to a large extent on the following requirements:

  • The innovation should focus on a challenge that is both relevant to citizens and complex, that is to say, one that has various causes and possible solutions, with interdependent components and which, therefore, cannot be addressed by a single institution.
  • The public administration:
    • Has the need, the will or the political mandate to address the challenge.
    • Understands the complexity of the challenge and the need to articulate innovative solutions in collaboration with the stakeholders involved.
    • Supports a process of social change without identifying any specific solution in advance.
    • Has human, technical and financial resources to address the challenge.
    • Has the capacity to lead and mobilise players involved in the possible solutions.
    • Has the support of facilitators (internal or external), who guide the administration in the process of defining the shared vision of the challenge and the strategy to respond to it, and also advise the stakeholders involved in the change process (helping to define common goals, prioritise opportunities for action and coordinate the actions of the different stakeholders involved).
  • The following objectives are achieved during the innovation process:
    • A common vision of the challenge is defined. It is essential to reach a full understanding of the challenge, enabling the establishment of a strategic framework for action by the relevant stakeholders (both those affected by the problem and those that can provide solutions from the world of public policy, knowledge or the development of products and new services).
    • A common action plan is designed. It is vital that the public administration and the stakeholders involved in the challenge should co-design an action plan that contains coordinated, mutually reinforcing measures that contribute to the response to the common challenge. The stakeholders should help to build up a shared agenda from their respective fields of action, seeking synergies and complementarities: the administration, from the field of public policies; the universities, by contributing knowledge; companies, by developing innovative products and services; citizens, by changing behaviours; and so on. These actions often take the shape of pilot projects that enable innovative ideas and solutions to be compared, improved and validated. If they produce the expected results, they are then systemised.
    • A common system of indicators and monitoring is designed. Designing shared measurement systems is an indispensable element, in order both to monitor progress and the contribution made by the actions of the different stakeholders, and to generate data for evaluation and learning purposes.
    • Virtual and face-to-face channels are established to enable smooth and systematic communications. Communication between the stakeholders involved is crucial for generating a common vocabulary and bonds of trust that enable these players to recognise the shared motivation that drives their efforts and enables them to work towards their common goals. The purpose of the work sessions is not to obtain financing, but to learn from each other and to address problems in cooperation others with who also share the will to resolve them. 
  1. The facilitator

The facilitator is key to ensuring that the objectives of innovation processes promoted by the public administration in terms of social impact are achieved.

The main tasks of the facilitator during the course of an innovation process are as follows:

  • Taking responsibility for guiding stakeholders through the innovation process, from identifying the challenge and defining the common vision to designing the strategy to respond to it, defining common objectives, articulating pilot projects to compare possible solutions, designing a system of indicators, evaluating actions and implementing the most effective solutions on a larger scale.
  • Creating a shared awareness among the stakeholders involved in the process, and guiding them towards the common goals so that it is they who, through their knowledge and experiences, propose and implement the solutions.
  • Fostering ties among stakeholders to strengthen bonds of trust and understanding, and the engagement required to address the challenge and generate systemic changes.
  • Encouraging critical thinking and creativity throughout the innovation process, and exploring unknown paths that may lead to unexpected places. This entails promoting different ways of thinking with the aim of imagining new solutions and discovering and creating new possibilities.

To perform these tasks, facilitators need certain personal attitudes and skills, as well as specific knowledge acquired through study and experience.

First and foremost, facilitators need to be capable of taking a strategic and holistic approach to challenges. This will enable them to understand the system in which these challenges are framed, in all its complexity, and to see elements that were not visible to the stakeholders involved. Facilitators should help stakeholders to understand the larger system that they form part of and their interrelations with it, so that new perspectives open up to them, generating measures aimed at achieving change. To this end, the capacity for abstraction, analysis, establishing relations and synthesis is essential.

Another requirement is an attitude shaped by commitment to the common good, aimed at achieving people-centred social transformation. Facilitators must be able to convey their vision and commitment to other people, and to persuade and mobilise stakeholders from very different fields.

Although facilitators do not necessarily have to be experts in the field of a challenge, it is essential that they take efforts to learn about its context and the interests and needs of the people involved in the process, as well as any restrictions and legal and organisational limitations that may exist. Facilitators should demonstrate to the various groups involved in the process that they occupy a neutral position as mediators helping to resolve conflicts and create points at which different interests can converge, and are not influenced by any particular interest group.

Finally, facilitators should master the tools and resources that can enable the implementation of people-centred social design processes, and should also be familiar with open innovation methodologies.

  1. The approach taken by the Government of Catalonia’s Catlabs programme

Through its Catlabs programme, the Government of Catalonia promotes social innovation, digital and collaborative projects. The main difficulties observed in articulating this type of projects are:

  • The reluctance, on the part of public decision-makers, to undertake long-term transformative processes whose results are uncertain and which question the usual way of doing things.
  • The difficulties of the public administration in articulating new forms of relationships and collaboration with other stakeholders.
  • The lack of methodological guides to managing social and collaborative innovation processes, and the lack of professionals with experience in social design processes who understand the idiosyncrasies of governments and can guide and advise the public administration in these processes.

Nevertheless, more and more practical examples are emerging in Catalonia, many of them in the local world, which demonstrate that, when these difficulties are overcome, more effective public policies can be implemented. These are policies that respond better to the needs of citizens and create greater impact and more new business opportunities, generating both economic and social value. In this context, one of the challenges facing the Catlabs program is that of helping to overcome the aforementioned obstacles so that digital and collaborative social innovation can occupy its rightful place in processes aimed at designing and implementing public policy.


Tatiana Fernández Sirera
Head of Economic Promotion, Ministry of the Vice-presidency and of the Economy and Finance

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