Social innovation in mountain territories: insights from the conference “Mountain regions, territories of innovation”

“Mountain regions, territories of innovation” was the title of an international conference held on January 11-13, 2017 in Grenoble, France. The conference was organised by Labex Item, the platform for mountain research and territorial action in the French Northern Alps; it regroups academic and public institutions and other local stakeholders in the French departments of Savoie and Isère.

The aim of the conference was to discuss the relationship between mountain regions and innovation in the context of a wide variety of topics ranging from tourist resorts to social innovation and spatial management. SIMRA was well represented at the conference, with the specific goal of fostering discussion on the issue of social innovation. Project partners attended, moderated, or presented the SIMRA project in several sessions.

How to define social innovation in mountain territories?

The session “Transformative social innovations in mountain territories” co-organised and run by Manfred Perlik (Centre for Development and Environment, University of Bern – a SIMRA partner) tried to answer the following questions:

  • How are social innovations different compared to other innovations?
  • What are the specificities of social innovations in the mountains?
  • What is an innovation in the context of a regional transformation process?

Several themes from different disciplines ranging from history to social anthropology, economic geography and political science were examined to address the socio-economic and cultural transformations in mountain areas, the relationship between regional actors and social innovation, as well as the specificities of social initiatives and governance in mountain regions.

Central issues were What is social innovation and how can we define it? To what extent are social innovations transformative? The presentations that took place during this session highlighted different definitions (see examples below), and SIMRA’s working definition was introduced:

Collective initiatives taken by citizens in response to social needs which are not otherwise fully satisfied by the market or political organisations (Klein and Harisson, 2007).

Social innovations are new solutions that simultaneously meet a social need and lead to new or improved capabilities and relationships and better use of assets and resources (European Commission).

The reconfiguring of social practices in response to challenges associated with society, economy or environment based on novel ideas and values. These practices include the creation of new institutions, networks and governance arrangements, and seek to enhance societal outcomes, especially but not exclusively for disadvantaged groups and recognising the likelihood of trade-offs among competing interests and outcomes. While these practices may include diverse institutions, they necessarily include the voluntary engagement of civil society actors [working definition based on the definition seen in the H2020 proposal of SIMRA (Nijnik et al., 2016) further developed by Slee at al. (in preparation)].

Several examples illustrated the richness of concepts associated with social innovation, which included references to new markets, governance, alternative networks, civil society mobilisation, cultural initiatives resources and relationships. For instance, one presentation focused on import-export dynamics in the macro-regional context of the Alps, highlighting the economic aspects of social innovation connected to competitiveness. Another presentation focused on territorial dynamics, asking how the origin and nature of relationships between residents of a region facilitate the emergence of social innovation, exogenously or endogenously.

How did SIMRA contribute?

Many SIMRA partners are interested in exploring the issue of social innovation in mountainous regions. Such areas can be regarded as marginalized with regard to their geography (difficult terrain, remoteness of internal areas, limited infrastructure, etc.) but are also highly heterogeneous. These characteristics were introduced by Martin Price (Perth College, University of the Highlands and Islands – a SIMRA partner and Euromontana Board member) in his keynote lecture.   Because mountain regions have specific constraints, looking at social innovations in mountain regions can help identify salient characteristics of these innovations and provide some answers regarding the patterns of emergence and development of social innovation in a physically constrained environment.

The conference included three SIMRA presentations largely based on joint considerations and shared views of team members from partner organizations and contributors: Carla Barlagne from the James Hutton Institute presented the SIMRA project with its conceptualisation of social innovation; Catie Burlando from UNIPD presented preliminary reflections on methods to evaluate social innovation in mountain areas; and Manfred Perlik from CDE (UNIBE) focused on the ambiguous character of innovation in the context of the Alps. In his point of view, a social innovation could be the questioning of the current Alpine specific strategies of regional development, and marketing.

The audience was reminded that social innovation has the potential to be a sustainable answer to economic and social crises. During a crisis, new modes of governance can rebuild trust relations and connections between individuals, thus also promoting economic relations and trade. A key element in the development of SIMRA is its emphasis on the involvement of stakeholders throughout the construction, implementation and evaluation of the project, particularly via the project’s Social Innovation Think Tank. SIMRA stakeholders can provide methodological advice, propose case studies, support network-building and offer feedback and contributions to ensure the project reflects the values it is trying to promote throughout the project and beyond.

Regarding evaluation methods, presentations and discussion during the conference highlighted how the identification of specific critical issues in the evaluation of social innovation can support more effective and inclusive mountain development policies via the adoption of indicators that capture the tangible and intangible elements of social innovation (e.g. network building, trust, quality of participation).

A few concluding remarks

Transformative social innovation was presented at the conference in the context of mountainous regions. As mountains are part of global peripheries, experiences from the mountains can be fruitfully applied in other marginalised areas. While it was again recognized that there is no agreed definition of social innovation, and there might be a need for a general, rather universal, common vision of social innovation, it remains a very case- and context-specific phenomenon, so that several definitions can co-exist.

The definitions introduced by the different speakers focussed on two categories of scale. The first highlighted actions that emerge from and are led by individuals of civil society. The second related it to territorial innovation, seen as profoundly entrenched in the characteristics and dynamics of territorial institutions with their norms, values and conventions. Despite the differences, both types of definition stressed the importance of territorial embeddedness but also networks (formal or informal) as drivers of social innovation. Both reiterated the potential transformative power of social innovation and drive to create change within governance systems. For example, the emergence of social innovation was analysed while keeping in mind the long trajectory of a territory’s cultural legacy, highlighting how it can lead to changes in practices and consequently to a rethinking of norms within territories. Finally, strategies to build resilience and to adapt were discussed in terms of how they are linked to social innovation.

By Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana), Maria Nijnik and Carla Barlagne (James Hutton Institute), Catie Burlando (UNIPD), Manfred Perlik (UNIBE) and Martin Price (UHI)

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10 February 2017