It is not a surprise that this conference, led by the European Commission (EC) together with the Portuguese government and the Gulbenkian Foundation and held on 27-28 November, was organised in Portugal. The country has embraced a series of social innovation approaches in financing such as impact assessments or impact bonds, and is also the home country of Carlos Moedas, who is European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation.

New forms of social innovation

Discussions on the first day focused on new forms of social innovation. Panellists asked the EU to release social impact investment. “Outcome payment funds would be a big step forward,’’ said Sir Ronald Cohen, from the Global Social Impact Investment Steering Group. However, this left me wondering about the potential risk that funding would focus on those who can give better outcomes and whether there is a risk that many people with multiple vulnerabilities might be left behind, aggravating the social crisis. Others requested that private companies make social investments and reiterated the key role of governments in regulating those investments to make them a reality.

A central element in the discussions was the need to scale innovation up, for which education, and knowledge transfer is vital. There was a suggestion to work with students in schools and universities to bring innovation to education settings. For example, Geoff Mulgan from NESTA, (England’s innovation agency) referred to a newly established indicator by the UK government on how well children and youth do on collaborative solving problems, which can reinforce partnership and in turn is a key aspect of social innovation.

Portugal’s President Rebelo de Sousa reminded us that we might have the policies, the economy and the legislation but what really matters is the people, and supporting them to improve their quality of life. This is certainly the mission of social services, which is guided by the principles of social inclusion and social justice, and work across the board to improve people’s opportunities and lives.

Social innovation in practice

There are certainly pockets of good practice across Europe, with all projects presented at the session I moderated, funded with EU funds. We heard about the new model for independent living in Portugal for example, integrated case management in Belgium, child-minding between 7 pm and 7am in Latvia for those on ‘non-standard jobs, and integrated services for migrants’ social inclusion in Finland.

These examples seek to empower the individuals with whom social services work so that they can be more autonomous and have control over their own lives. They all introduce an innovation element, whether a cross-sectoral partnership, an evaluation with comparison groups, a technology application or new professional roles. We also discussed the resources developed by the European Commission Joint Research Centre to assess the level of innovation of the examples presented, which could become a benchmarking tool in Europe. Members of the audience voted through an electronic app co-produced services as an example of innovation they would like to see more of in social services and ask the Commission to fund more of these in the future.

Lessons learnt

Reading through the project descriptions on my way home, I realised that there are a number of commonalities across the projects that make them promising. Mission-oriented funding, a strong focus on inter-sectoral cooperation and people’s empowerment to promote their autonomy were among these. Transforming future social services via ‘co-production’ will be a key word that could guide scaling up local practice, and the EU can play a key role in supporting this move to make it happen.