The contribution of Social Innovation practices in the Italian Context

Articles in this special issues observe how cities impact on the implementation of social innovation practices, ways through which, in other words, cities, through the configuration of spaces and services conducive to “inclusive learning environments”, tackle urban exclusion.

These spaces display collaborative interactions and shape innovative management schemes, where practitioners, entrepreneurs, foundations and public actors are able to experiment with new cultural and education activities.

This work is conceptually grounded upon the discussion of two hypotheses:

The first theoretical hypothesis behind the SI is to “bridge the gap” in the use of “inclusive learning environment” concept, traditionally used in the scholar and higher education ecosystem, focusing on the dynamics between formal education institution and its surrounding contexts. This writing focuses on informal frameworks and organisations such as social innovation practices —all of which are influenced by and contribute to the urban environment— playing important roles in achieving education and cultural outcomes, enhancing social transformation for a equaland open society.

The second pragmatic hypothesis is that cities, through social innovation practices, can generate spaces for new “inclusive learning environments”, working alongside and in opposition to urban agendas, mostly as independent initiatives arising from emergent and transformative social leaderships.

Why Social Innovation practices: planning vs experimentation

In recent years, the concept of social innovation has become increasingly important in the political debate of many countries, both in the European and other macro contexts. Described as a buzz word, policy panacea or outcome of collective intelligence processes, in Italy the social innovation debate is becoming progressively relevant both in the public and political debate and rethorics. Despite the recent introduction of highly experimental social innovation-based public policies, Italy suffers from a chronic absence of a comprehensive long term thematic agendas, which has made the experimented programs less effective and dispersive in their objectives.

This special issue dedicated to the Italian context, describes the need to prioritise social innovation inside urban agendas, as part of a new, future-ready strategy to tackle inclusion issues fostering the creation of highly accessible spaces filled with cultural and educative functions.

The urban scale represent an interesting level to analyse these processes because of the density of interactions among several actors ,usually intertwined with local and national dynamics.

Borrowing the words from Aaron Wildavsky, If “planning is everything, maybe is nothing”, we want to emphasise how inclusive learning environments can contribute in enhancing the value of experimental paths of urban innovation, overcoming traditional and old-schools planning strategies delivered through public services. The value of this approach is indeed focused on valuing the specific peculiarities of local territories, citizens spontaneous participation and their direct action in determining social change in their cities.

Understanding the context: urban exclusion issues in Italy

Eurostat data shows Italy as a country with a high percentage of the population at risk of poverty and social exclusion (18.1 million people) that in 2016 was higher than 6, 5 percentage points compared to the EU28 average (30% compared to 23.5%), up from 25.5% in 2008. People at risk of poverty or social exclusion live in the most densely populated areas of the European region, the same happens in Italy where individuals at higher risk of poverty and social exclusion live in urban areas (in 2016 there were almost 6.3 million, equal to 30.3% of the population).

The issue of poor work conditions is also a problematic feature of the economic structure of Italian cities: in 2015 the average per capita income of the most densely populated areas was lower than in 2011, while in the same areas of the EU and in the same period the average income has grown up (In Italy 19.312 euro nel 2015, 19.395 2011; in EU28 from 19.728 euro in 2015, to 18.659 euro in 2011). I In our country the job issue is inherently linked to the social inequalities, especially in terms of skills and education, the latest Eurostat data see Italy situated in the worst position in Europe in terms of Neet, young people between 18 and 24 who do not have a job and are not on a course of study: it’sthe higher positions of the European ranking in 2018, with a percentage of 28.9% (it was 25.7% in 2017), compared to a European average of 16.5% . With an almost equivalent percentage between metropolitan areas, suburbs and rural areas

Italy shows a gap between the native and the foreign population regarding the risk of poverty and social exclusion which is at least 5 points higher than that of the EU28. This picture clashes with another indicator described by the European Commission and UN Habitat:the employment rate of the foreign population in urban areas; in fact, the percentage of people between 20 and 64 years of foreign background occupied in the most densely populated Italian areas (that was around 86% in 2014), is higher than the one of the native population, around 59%. In our cities, the share of the overall working-age population is double, meaning that we have many young second generation or citizens with migrant background employed and essential to the sustainability of the life of our cities.

The topic of multiculturalism and foreign workers, is currently largely affecting the mainstream political narratives about the economic growth of the country but we need to remember that . in the last ten years the immigration of workers has decreased while the emigration of Italians is constantly increasing.Besides, we can’t find concrete evidence about the growth of irregular immigrants in our urban areas.

The elephant in the room: education in Italy and inequalities
According to a survey on adult skills, the scores of the Italian population is struggling compared to the OECD average. Unemployment is above average and young people at all levels of education are facing relevant difficulties in accessing the labor market, due to important weaknesses related to the lack of digital skills and IT education. According to the latest OECD report on social mobility in Italy, the return on investment in higher education is one of the lowest: graduates with university degrees achieve returns on investment on average 40% higher than graduates, 20 points less compared to 60% of the average of OECD countries.

PISA 2015 data, on the other hand, report regional disparities regarding access to opportunities in the secondary, post-secondary (eg. post-graduate technical courses) and tertiary education (eg universities): in regions such as Puglia we observe data such as 48,4%, in the Autonomous Province of Trento the percentage rises to 69.7% with a gap of 21.3 percentage points.

The latest “52nd Censis Report: sulla situazione del Paese” shows how the few opportunities offered by some territories increasingly contribute in pushing southern young people in undertaking their academic studies in the central and northern regions. 172 thousand southern students are currently attending courses in the universities of the Center North (11% of the total), The net balance of this trend is particularly negative for Puglia (-35 thousand students), Sicily (-33 thousand) and Calabria (-23 thousand).

A place-based approach to combine education and culture: social innovation practices in urban contexts

Bearing in mind the gaps and differences between territories and cities, neighbourhoods and populations that inhabit them, we want to investigate a possible new logic applied to urban policies that highlights the educational value of experimentation and social innovation as a local response to nation-wide problems. The observation of practices can help to set clearer priorities in urban agendas at different scales: holding human capital in high regard and considering knowledge and culture as the most important social elevators and factors in bottom-up innovation processes able to enable citizens to be autonomous and deliberate in their participation in community life.

We believe that cities have the transformative potential to experiment with innovative strategies to meet the challenges of the future. A transformative potential that Saskia Sassen identifies with urban capability, as the creation of material and immaterial opportunities contributing to a peaceful coexistence of diversity (economic, political, cultural, etc.).

The methodology used in the description of social innovation practices must surely state the limits of the field of analysis: framing the work of organizations that operate “from below” to bring and foster social change means navigating complexity, bypassing the formal division of administrative levels, economic sectors and policy objectives; describing the way in which they’ve acquired intangible resources (as knowledge, trust and competencies) and tangible resources (as funding and spatial assets) through a tailor-made approach guided by local actors, practicing creative solutions to solve the challenges they face every day in their within their contexts

In the “inclusive learning environments” analysed in the special issue we observe many transformative instances.

The meaning of the concept of “learning environment” is related to the ability of individuals belonging to a local community to act consciously and directly in relation to the socio-territorial context in which they live. The organizations that sustain these new learning environment adopt techniques of co-creation to create opportunities for people to design their future practically experiencing the present world, accepting its challenges, playing with its rules and preserving their own free and democratic expression.

These learning environments also contribute in setting critical questions inside the debate on informal and formal education practices: the first ones still seen as priority targets of institutional policies and as an exclusive way to deliver inclusive education.

Structure and topic covered in the analysis of social innovation practices as “inclusive learning environments”:

We analyse two case studies of “inclusive learning environments” in two different italian cities:
● Bologna: Kilowatt, a community hub based in Serre dei Giardini Margherita.
● Napoli: Fondazione Foqus in the Quartieri Spagnoli Neighborhood

The analysis has been conducted through qualitative methods (interviews to project managers) in order to emphasize the following operational aspects:

The territorial and community-based dimension of “inclusive learning environments”: The definition of contextual problems, shared priorities, responsibilities and competences among different local actors through collaborative governance schemes and the use of co-production methodologies with public actors.
Impact and the outcomes of their activities: The identification of inter-sectoral impact (es. on education, culture, training, etc.) in defined areas (es. cities, neighbourhoods, regions) and targets (es. young, adults). The delivery of a set of cultural, training, experimental activities involving: community groups, private actors, public bodies in order to tackle challenges, problems, exploit business opportunities linked to their contexts.

Insights from testing and prototyping solutions: The identification of quantitative and qualitative data on the way in which they test and experiment innovative services in the field of culture and education. Focusing their effort in prototyping solutions through a hybrid use of spaces and highly accessible experimental services.

Promoting social change through education: The identification of positive consequences generated from these practices in the way educational activities are run. The description of outcomes and the production of evidence about the inclusiveness of their operations.

Kilowatt: an inclusive learning HUB in Bologna
Share this:

About Federica Fulghesu

Federica Fulghesu

Federica is a Project Manager at Nesta Italia. Currently she works at the design and management of projects related to inclusion urban policies and development of intercultural practices, also supporting the work of the Foundation in other areas (education, arts, emerging technologies) through content production, event organisation and participation to EU and national calls. In particular, she leads a pilot for the experimentation of new methodologies (inspired to social innovation labs) for the development and innovation of urban policies in the field of inclusion. Before joining Nesta Italia, Federca was Engagement and Advocacy Coordinator for the Mozilla Fundation, coordinating the advocacy actions in Italy and Spain and the relations between the Foundation and the EU Commission regarding campaigns for digital rights, creativity and open source. She took part in several european projects in the field of social innovation and entrepreneurship in Universities and european organisations. She has several experiences in curating cultural and artistic projects. She has a degree in Law, European and International Relations with a research thesis in Community Governance and Problem Oriented Policing.

  • Email

About Chiara Missikoff

Chiara Missikoff

Chiara Missikoff is a social researcher and facilitator at Sociolab, a multidisciplinary research centre based in Florence. Experienced in action-research and community engagement, she has mainly focused her work on urban regeneration, gender issues and social inclusion. She collaborated with Città Ibrida (Rome), Fondazione G.Feltrinelli (Milan), West of Scotland Regional Equality Council (Glasgow, UK) and the Post-conflict Research Centre (Sarajevo, BiH). In 2015, she co-founded Chayn Italia, the italian chapter of a global charity that leverages technology to empower women against domestic violence through open source need-specific toolkits, web platforms and workshops. She holds a Master in International relations from the University of Bologna and a Master of Research from the University of Glasgow. During her studies, she has developed a specific knowledge on post-socialist divided societies due to her field researches in Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia.

  • Email

About Luca Tricarico

Luca Tricarico

Researcher at the Department of Business and Management of Luiss Guido Carli University, holding a post-doc fellowship on Social Innovation Based Entrepreneurial Models: assets and contextual conditions in urban regeneration and regional developments. PhD in Urban Planning, Design and Policy at the Politecnico di Milano, Luca has been PhD visiting fellow at the Department of Geography and Environment of the London School of Economics and Political Science. In addition, Luca has experienced research activities and consultancies for different institutions, foundations and research centres like Nesta Italia, University of Milano Bicocca, Milan Center for Food Law and Policy, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation, IEFE/Bocconi University, Institute for Social Research (IRS, Milan), the European Research Center on Cooperatives and Social Enterprises and the Regional Agency for Technology and Innovation (Apulia Regional Government). His research interests include the analysis and evaluation of urban policies; the organisational and policy implications of social innovation, cultural and community-based entrepreneurship, social Impact of emergent technologies.

  • Email