The Urban Politics and Governance of Social Innovation in Austerity

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Geography


Our AIM is to investigate the urban politics and governance of social innovation in austerity.

Social innovation involves new ideas for products, services and ways of working that meet unmet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. Austerity can accelerate social innovation in cities, but may also push it in particular directions, with significant, but little understood, implications for urban politics and governance. Social innovation involves three essential components: generating financial resources, harnessing social energy, and meeting social needs. We will address our aim by pursing three OBJECTIVES:

1) We will generate new knowledge of the relationship between social innovation and urban politics and governance in European cities, through research on three essential components of social innovation: generating financial resources, harnessing social energy and meeting material needs.

2) We will investigate the impact of contrasting experiences of austerity on the urban politics and governance of social innovation using a comparative methodology three cities: Athens, Berlin and Newcastle.

3) We will promote urban social innovation in Europe through the sharing and development of knowledge, experience and practice between cities among social innovators, urban policy-makers, community practitioners and social activists, via a new international Urban Social Innovation Network (USIN).

GENERATING RESOURCES: ALTERNATIVE FINANCE. It is often difficult to raise funds for social innovation from conventional commercial sources, and in austerity public sector funding is limited. Alternative finance, including crowdfunding, peer-to-peer lending, and impact investing, offers social innovators the opportunity to generate financial resources that would otherwise be unavailable. Moreover, alternative finance is also a form of social innovation in its own right.

HARNESSING ENERGY: GRASSROOTS MOBILISATION. Social innovation is 'achieved through the activism, energy and creativity of social groups, organisations, communities and individuals' (Call text). Social energy involves dynamic interactions that create capacities to act beyond the sum of their parts. It is intense in grassroots protest movements, notably those responding to austerity. However the energy of grassroots mobilisations can quickly dissipate once the immediate moment of protest has passed.

MEETING NEEDS: COMMUNITY PROVISIONING. A key goal of social innovation is to meet social needs that are not being adequately met through conventional private or public provision. Material needs for food, energy, housing and transport are particularly acute in austerity, but so too are cultural needs for hope, inspiration, education and caring. Social innovation to meet needs through community provisioning generates new 'patterns of care and responsibility'.

In each city we will investigate how alternative finance, grassroots mobilisation and community provisioning cotribute to social innovation in austerity. We will examine how such social innovations affect urban politics and governance by disrupting existing power relations and channels of legitimacy and accountability, creating new forms of citizenship, challenging traditional institutions and ways of working, and generating competition for public services. It is important to understand the impact of social innovation on urban politics and governance to ensure the effective contribution of social innovation to future urban transformation.

Throughout the research we will work closely with local practitioners, activists and policy-makers in each city. We will establish an Urban Social Innovation Network through which they will be able to meet, share ideas and experiences, and exchange knowledge with each other and with the research team and other experts. Our research will benefit social innovators, community organisations, city governments as well as other researchers.

Planned Impact


Three beneficiary groups have been identified, with the intention to maximise the reach of the impact, while also taking a focused approach in assessing its significance. The reach of the impact is therefore anticipated to include:

1. Social innovators in cities under austerity including alternative financiers, grassroots mobilising community organisations and campaign groups and alternative community providers. Through its participatory impact approach, the project will bring together the stakeholders from the three cities, facilitating their mutual learning, interaction and potential direct co-operation.

2. City councils and municipal state authorities. Taking into account the significantly diverse political landscape and subsequent austerity policies in the three cities, local authorities in the three cities will benefit significantly (a) from interaction with grassroots/ alternative community providers in their own cities and (b) from juxtaposition with policies and interaction with policy-makers in the other two cities.

3. The general urban public in cities faced with austerity policies. The project's explicitly outward-facing impact and dissemination strategy, including its Online Toolkit for Urban Social Innovation and public exhibition of findings will allow the general public in all three cities a unique and in-depth insight into social innovation under austerity in the other two urban settings.


For the first cluster of beneficiaries, the significance of the project impact will be assessed by analysing enhancement to the practices of social innovation as an effect of the uptake and use of the project's Online Toolkit for Urban Social Innovation, as well as through the utilisation of the Urban Social Innovation Network (USIN). Feedback through local and cross-city workshops will be gathered, forming part of the development process for the Online Toolkit and fermenting the establishment of the USIN (see also Pathways to Impact).

The impact amongst local urban authorities (including city councils and municipal state) will be understood and measured through their level of engagement to the USIN and through the level of their implementation of key project findings on social innovation in local policy. It is anticipated that such implementation will have a "knock-on" effect on austerity-related local and urban policies in cities across Europe.

Finally, the two-fold impact-focused outcomes of the project (the Online Toolkit and USIN) will allow extremely significant and unprecedented interaction and co-operation between the project's stakeholder and beneficiary groups: at a time when local authorities are increasingly reliant on the creativity and resilience of local community groups and organisations, as social innovation becomes key in the provision of public services previously managed and provided by the central state, the project's potential for impact is immense. Bringing together these key beneficiaries and stakeholders will allow for impact by the way in which community organisations act, in their understanding of cross-border austerity policies and their effects, consequently impacting upon public understanding and debate on social innovation under austerity.


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Description The research investigated the politics of urban social innovation in three European cities (Athens, Berlin and Newcastle) selected for their contrasting experiences of austerity since 2008.

For the purposes of the research we initially defined 'social innovation' as 'new products, processes, ideas or organisational forms that have a primarily social, rather than commercial purpose'. We focused on groups and organisations working in the social and community economy (broadly defined) and specifically in the fields of finance, arts and culture, and food production, distribution and consumption. The research used primarily qualitative and case-study methods. In each city worked collaboratively with selected organisations to share insights and promote peer-to-peer learning. The study covered three (sometimes overlapping) modes of social innovation: innovation with a social purpose, innovation through social means (such as sharing, commoning or collaborating) and innovations in the social (new forms of social organisation and interaction).

We found that understandings of, and attitudes towards, social innovation varied significantly between cities and among organisations within cities. Some organisations - notably those in the finance field or engaged in social entrepreneurship - embraced the idea and language of social innovation. Others were comfortable with being described as social innovators, but did not spontaneously self-identify as such. Some arts and culture organisations saw themselves as questioning the concept of innovation, particularly as it relates to creativity and urban politics. Finally a number of community-based groups in the study rejected the label of social innovation entirely either because of its associations with neo-liberal ideas or because they considered the pressure from policy-makers and funders to constantly innovate risked under-valuing or driving out well-established good practice.

We found that the language of social innovation was seen as alien and alienating by a number of groups and organisations engaged in developing creative responses to urban problems. Alternative vocabularies or counter-discourses included those relating to experimentation; adaptation; maintenance, repair and preservation; sustainability; and solidarity and social justice.

In the domain of finance, we found that in some contexts urban crowdfunding has emerged as an intermediate form of resource generation situated between more financialised approaches (e.g. social venture capital, social impact bonds) and more solidarity-based approaches (e.g. local currencies, time banking, community shares).

In the domain of food production, distribution and consumption we found that groups were combining existing approaches in novel ways. Examples include urban gardening combined with initiatives around climate change and urban inequality, food banks and coops combined with creative neighbourhood hubs and forums, and pop-up canteens and cafés combining tackling food waste with providing nutrition and work experience to refugees and other marginalised groups.

In the domain of arts and culture we found that artist-led studio spaces are notable sites of experimentation and political innovation, linking creative practice to urban politics in new ways. At the same time, the wider institutional and regulatory environment has a significant impact on the capacity of grassroots arts organisations to provide sustainable infrastructure for such practice.
Exploitation Route During the research we organised events involving peer-to-peer knowledge exchange in the domains of arts and culture and urban food production, distribution and consumption. There is potential for further collaboration in these domains across the three cities and beyond.

Our research findings regarding the impact of differences in local policy and regulatory environments on the sustainabilty of urban arts organisations have the potential to inform policy-making regarding the community use of otherwise redundant urban space.

Our findings relating to urban social innovation in the domain of finance have the potential to inform policy-making and to assist community organisations and social enterprises to make appropriate decisions about whether and how to engage with innovative forms of resource generation.

Our forthcoming documtary film, Urban Ingenuities, will convey our findings in an accessible format. We aim to show the film publically in all three cities (Athens, Berlin and Newcastle) and online, with a view to raising awareness and promoting debate about the issues raised by the research.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections