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The role of social innovation in changing industries

From plastic to textiles, from mental health to artificial intelligence, witnessing the key role of social innovation in transforming systems
Continue Reading The role of social innovation in changing industries

The role of social innovation in changing industries

July 6th 2023
By Sophie Robin
Stone Soup Impact Director and Co-founder

For many years I have had the privilege of collaborating with the European Investment Bank Institute in the selection process of the Social Innovation Tournament that recognises and supports the best European social entrepreneurs whose primary purpose is to generate a social, ethical or environmental impact. What makes this tournament unique is that it rewards European-led social innovations independently of the sector, the stage of the project, or the type of organisation. This year nearly 300 candidates applied, of which 15 were selected as finalists. Since 2012 there have seen 166 finalists from more than 2 000 applicants. Across all of the applicants, and within the group of those not selected, there are many very valuable projects spanning a wide range of themes and European geographies.  Taken collectively, these projects show how important new trends emerge, then consolidate and finally are capable of transforming unsustainable systems. Social innovations are showing us the future.

How prior years of isolated projects in a specific topic later blossoms into a suite of diverse and complementary solutions

The new alternatives to plastic:

Over the last decade we have seen through the lens of the SIT process how alternatives to plastic have evolved from just a few innovative ideas, mostly related to plastic bags and cups, to encompassing many plastic types and products, including microplastics, packaging – big and small-, coating, etc.  Today, the problem of plastic is being tackled from a number of perspectives shown by some of the SIT finalists projects: new alternatives products to plastic, like Cellugy or plasticfri, new processes (Re-purpose Global or Newcy), plastic recycling projects of all types sometimes mixed with awareness-raising campaigns (zouri shoes).

Despite these solutions, plastic still overwhelms. This is true even in Europe, where many governments have taken concrete steps to support the plastic transition: Investigate Europe, quoting Plastics Europe in an article on the problem of plastic waste, says that although Europe is above the world average in the proportion of recycled plastic (at 10 per cent), the pile of waste is growing:  Whilst  recycled plastic packaging waste per citizen increased by 3.2kg per person between 2010 and 2020, plastic generated increased by 20kg per person.

Although alternatives to plastic are bubbling up, and increasingly apparent amongst SIT applicants, more needs to be done, at a systemic level, to consolidate the small gains and reverse these trends.

Tackling the lifecycle of textile products:

The textile industry offers another interesting and very similar trend to plastics. Both industries are very intertwined and share similar issues when it comes to finding sustainable solutions. Like plastic, one major problem of textile is overproduction. Recycling projects are only part of the answer.  Through the SIT, we have seen this field evolving from just a few standalone projects a decade ago, to many projects offering all sorts of alternatives linked to recycle, reuse (upcycle) or reduce: new textiles made of recycled fabrics or organic materials, like mycelium , orange fibre,  or bio-based leather, more efficient ways of recycling textile, which sometimes add a social dimension to their value proposition (Progetto QUID), renting projects to foster re-use, amongst many others.

Regulators are starting to look closely at the industry to foster greener production and consumption and avoid greenwashing. Following up on the European Green Deal, the new circular economy action plan and the industrial strategy for the textiles’ sector,  the Commission presented in March 2022 the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles to address the entire lifecycle of textile products and propose actions to change how we produce and consume textiles.

However, there is still much to do. According to The Guardian, the average European throws away 11kg of clothes, shoes and other fabric goods every year. Textiles are the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, after food, housing and transport, as well as consuming vast amounts of water and raw materials. Overall, Europe generates more than 16 million tonnes of textile waste annually. 73% end up incinerated or in landfills and only 1% is recycled. Overproduction should stop and the focus should be on durability, either through better quality and/or repair. Quoted by the same article, the EU environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, said the commission wanted fast fashion to get out of fashion: “By 2030 textiles placed on the EU market should be long-lived and recyclable, made to a large extent of recycled fibres.” 

Whilst the plastic and textile revolutions are still very much in their infancy, what the SIT shows is that progressively these industries are absorbing more sustainable ideas, amplifying the change to all sub-components of their ecosystems.

These trends seem to appear spontaneously: from very little to no mention one year, to suddenly many initiatives dealing with the challenge from a range of perspectives.

SIT 2023 – Illustrating new trends for the future?

The 2023 Tournament has been no different from the previous ones. We have enjoyed seeing how some key trends are starting to form small waves, which we hope will become stronger over the years – like the examples above- and eventually will attract enough stakeholders to positively alter the systems they seek to influence.

Examples of trends that have emerged in the 2023 Tournament are related to Mental Health, Artificial Intelligence and Legal Empowerment.

Mental health:

Data from Eurofound’s e-survey indicate that in Spring 2022, more than one in two people (55%) could be considered at risk of depression across EU countries, with the risk being higher among women, unemployed people, people with financial difficulties and younger people. According to the EU-OSHA’s workers’ survey, 44% workers say that their work stress has increased as a result of the pandemic.  A systematic review, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, that has drew evidence from 177 studies in 20 European countries highlights that the “provision of mental health services has long lagged behind demand, and in recent years this demand has continued to rise without sufficient increase in service provision.”

This context explains why many social innovations have been set up to help tackle these challenges, not only to help detect early-stage mental health issues and connect people with the right support service in their countries, but also to help tackle the gap between the demand and current responses.   Social innovations are dealing with Mental in the workplace, at school, in homes.

Some projects tackle causes, or risk factors, of depression. Many, for example, have developed online or offline solutions to fight against loneliness supporting kids, individuals, or even families. Others are directed towards migrants and refugees who are generally more likely to suffer from loneliness.

Artificial Intelligence:

Also noticeable this year was the role of artificial intelligence in addressing these societal challenges. Many of the tools presented – to support mental health, social inclusion, sustainable buildings, physical safety, rural development etc. -, are using Artificial Intelligence (AI) one way or another.  Sophia Chatbot, a 2023 SIT finalist, is a reflection of these changes. This is a trend that will probably grow in future years considering that, according to IDC, AI spending in Europe is growing very fast (Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 29.6% between 2021 and 2026 which is higher than worldwide CAGR of 27.0%).  Whilst AI is, no doubt, part of the solution for many societal issues, it will be important to make sure these tools complement, rather than substitute, the human connections that are at the heart of many social innovations. They will also need to consider not only the social, but also the environmental trade-offs that AI or IT solutions generate (e.g. Researchers from Lancaster University reckon that Information and Communication Technology’s true proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions could be around 2.1-3.9% ).

Legal Empowerment:

Finally, we have seen interesting projects linked to the simplification of the legal contracting process, empowering individuals so that they can understand and act on their rights. This was transversal, from health to citizenship to labour (contracting). Such initiatives look at simplifying how contractual information is presented and channelled to individuals (workers, migrants, citizen etc.) so that they have a clearer understanding of their rights. Legal contract simplification has been a notable trend across Europe in recent years, where efforts have been made to streamline and simplify contractual language and provisions to enhance accessibility, reduce ambiguity, and promote efficiency in legal transactions. These processes have been around for decades, but – thanks to the availability of new technologies – it is now spreading much faster. 2023 SIT finalist SUMM AI is an example of such trend.

From single solutions to systemic ones

These are only a few of the highlights and a high-level description of the very wide array of relevant societal challenges being tackled by a rich ecosystem of businesses, NGOs, foundations, schools and public administrations across Europe.  We also have seen innovative projects rising to the challenges of energy optimisation, CO2 emissions reduction, earlier and better health diagnosis, better and/or more sustainable mobility, amongst so many others.

It is easy to feel we are drowning under so many complex, sensitive and interrelated issues, where each move we take towards what we think is an improvement seems to also move other parts, unfortunately not always for the better.  This is why it is so important for all social innovations to consider the repercussion of their solution in the overall ecosystem. Adopting a systemic mindset is key. 

The lesson from the SIT is that we need more solutions to form the waves needed to change these systems. Despite the complexity involved, it is important to retain a positive, optimistic, and proactive outlook on the future. As Anne Frank’s once wrote in one of her lesser-known writings: “How wonderful is it that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”.

To write this article, we have been inspired by the more than 2 000 projects that have been applying to the SIT over more than a decade. All are very valuable to society, even as they have not been selected as finalists. We would like to thank all of them for their dedication, the inspiration and their hard work toward social and environmental justice.

To check the 166 social innovations that have been finalists in the Social Innovation Tournament of the European Bank Institute, please visit this website: SIT previous results – EIB Institute

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