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Social innovators in civil society – important but underfunded

Published: 13 June 2021

Sweden has a long tradition of civil society developing innovative solutions to societal challenges. But public investments in innovation go mainly to commercial actors.
– A national investment fund is needed to support civil society's social innovations, says Malin Lindberg, professor of gender and technology.

Many of the welfare state's social services, such as home care, childcare, nursing education, ambulances and pharmacies, which we today take for granted as part of the public sector, spring from innovations in civil society. It shows, according to Malin Lindberg, the important role that civil society has played and still plays for public welfare.

Civil society refers to organizations, networks and voluntary initiatives that do not belong to the state, the business community or the family. They conduct a variety of activities in areas such as culture, sports, public education, outdoor life, integration and social care within the framework of, among other things, interest groups, popular movements, cooperatives, sports and cultural associations, religious communities, student unions, cooperatives and foundations.

Strong civil society in Sweden

In a report written on behalf of the Entreprenörskapsforum (Entrepreneurship Forum), Malin Lindberg has compiled knowledge about the role of civil society as a social innovator, ie innovations that improve people's well-being, inclusion and autonomy in the form of services, methods and activities. She states that Swedish civil society is strong, but that it has traditionally fulfilled a different function than in less pronounced welfare states such as the USA and the United Kingdom, where they perform welfare services to a greater extent.

– In Sweden, civil society has often been perceived as a complement to the public sector. Civil society is encouraged to social innovations in areas not covered by the public sector.

During the post-war period, stable and formalized relations were established between the state and civil society. During the 1990s, the social contract between the two spheres changed. With the reforms of the 1990s, there are greater expectations on the part of the state that civil society, through its proximity to the target group and through increased diversity, will be able to contribute to innovative solutions to societal challenges. But according to Malin Lindberg, the increased expectations of increased public support and compensation that cover the entire process do not correspond.

– The potential of civil society organizations is not sufficiently exploited. The financial support usually includes work with idea generation and testing, but not planning, upscaling and implementation.

The support goes to the private sector

Another problem is that support structures for innovation in the form of research, consultancy and incubators are mostly focused on commercial products and services in the private sector.

However, Malin Lindberg thinks that the development is going in the right direction. Recently, support for social innovations has been initiated by, among others, Vinnova and the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth. Knowledge in the area is conducted by, among others, Mötesplats social innovation, a knowledge platform with, among others, Luleå University of Technology as participants.

But more needs to be done, she says. In the light of the conclusions, the report concludes with four policy recommendations: set up a national investment fund, adapt the forms of collaboration between non-profit and public actors, ensure civil society representation in established collaborative constellations for innovation and entrepreneurship and set up a research fund for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge development in social innovation.