In the last couple of months public discourse in the EU was dominated by the discussion of how to deal with the influx of people primarily from the Middle East to Europe. Looking at these processes from a perspective that puts Sustainable Innovation at the core of reaching goals like the ones specified in the Horzion2020 program or the UN-Sustainable Development goals, some interesting observations and conclusions can be made.
In some parts of Europe a so called “Willkommenskultur” (“welcoming culture”) took shape and was predominantly carried out by organisations of the civil society. What we saw there was not only a sign of human solidarity but also the rise of innovative techniques that tackled a societal challenge at times were governments alone could not sustain the administration of the influx of people.
Innovative social techniques
To illustrate these claims we can take a look at the case of Austria, where a number of initiatives were started during the early months of the refugee movement towards Europe. One of these private initiatives is called the Train of Hope, a formation of people that - in an early stage of refugees arriving in Austria - provided food, shelter, translation services, clothing and even assistance in searching lost family members. With the numbers of refugees arriving on a daily basis declining, the initiative has extended its scope of activities to more long lasting activities like language classes, sports projects, cultural programs and other measures aiming at the integration of recently arrived persons.
Another example is the platform Refugees Welcome which aims to connect landlords, tenants and refugees to provide living space for them. In a very similar way a German platform called Workeer tries to connect refugees with employers to create job opportunities and make the interaction between these two groups easier. Another example is the project called Science in Asylum – induced and managed by the ZSI – which supports scientists who have fled from war and troubled areas to gain a foothold in the science community and the labour market. Although it is not considered as an initiative stemming from civil society as it was founded and managed by a non-profit organization, it is a reaction to a lack of existing mechanisms and therefore an important social innovation.
Adapting to new challenges
All these projects have some features in common: they are innovative social practices tackling urgent societal challenges and therefore filling a gap that was not covered sufficiently enough by public authorities. As their socially innovative character seems to be obvious, the question raises whether those initiatives can also be considered as contributing to an “Innovation culture” – meaning an inclusive society that enhances socially, economically and ecologically sustainable innovations. Two general questions seem very important in this respect:
- How can these innovations contribute to the transformation towards an inclusive “Innovation culture”?
- How can these projects lead to organisational, social or systemic transformation or change that would enable European societies to adapt to new challenges?
It is hereby crucial to these projects and initiatives to not only rely on their own experiences, but to learn from other Sustainable Innovations their crucial issues. For this purpose a platform like CASIPEDIA can definitely be of great benefit. CASIPEDIA offers insight into the so called ‘Social Festival-Keep the Ball rolling’, a very successful Austrian sustainable innovation that offers the opportunity for citizens to come forward with their ideas on how to foster social cohesion in their region. The Social Festival provides an institutional framework that helps to implement these ideas and to secure their longevity e.g. by providing access to their network or offering assistance in the interaction with public institutions.
Push innovation through inclusion of refugees
Besides this push for innovations that was induced by the refugees coming to Europe, there is another fact we have to pay attention to when talking about refugees. As Annekathrin Niebuhr concludes in her study, cultural diversity affects the innovation activity in a region in a positive way. When different knowledge systems and capabilities meet, the potential to create something innovative is fairly high, if potential risks like language barriers are overcome. These findings show that cultural diversity can be an important factor in the enhancement of societal Innovations.
Therefore, taking a long term perspective, the transformation from a “Willkommenskultur” to an “Innovation culture” is a not only a likely possibility but a mere necessity to contribute to the commonly set Horizon2020 and Sustainable Development Goals. To create and facilitate an “Innovation culture” it will be crucial to the EU to foster Sustainable Innovation in a way that incorporates refugees as active players and not only as target groups.
Niebuhr, Annekatrin (2010): Migration and innovation: Does cultural diversity matter for regional R&D activity? In: Papers in Regional Science, Vol. 89, No. 3, S. 563-585.