Social innovation in times of COVID-19: a time lacking in desires, yet full of frustrations

Columnist: Roberto Di Meglio


The crisis generated by COVID-19 and its tragic consequences have placed the social dimension in the spotlight of public debate, focusing on the collective needs in the search of new paradigms of development. These needs consist of health, work, education and last, but not least, the environmental crisis. As stated in the United Nations 2030 Agenda, these various dimensions are all interrelated and have to do with the present and the future of the planet and its people.

It has become imperative to place people and their needs at the centre, creating new ties between the productive world, institutions and general needs in order to face the accelerated changes brought about by the current crisis. We need innovation to integrate the social dimension with the economic and technological dimensions.

We need social innovation, that is, the capacity to transform the dynamics of relationships between institutions, an area that requires additional and alternative solutions to traditional ones. We need social innovation to create new goods, services with significant social impact, and new production processes that reduce costs and improve quality. For example, through enterprises of the social and solidarity economy (SSE) that promote innovative concepts of enterprise, from organizations that aim to maximise profit to organizations that pursue, above all, a social purpose while being economically viable.

In the case of SSE enterprises and organizations, the potential to bring transformation is focused on the territorial level, where it is necessary to advocate partnerships that promote the transforming function in the relations between the actors with the power to influence local processes.

What needs to be put in place to create a favourable environment for social innovation?

  • Opening up to external influences, which avoids navel-gazing;
  • Filling existing skills gaps with appropriate training;
  • Obtaining financial resources;
  • Facilitating the digital transition.

The exchange of methodologies and experiences, in various fields, offers the possibility of learning from others, eventually adapting these new findings to the characteristics that each territorial environment needs according to their vocation, culture and heritage. In the context of exchanges, we can mention the SSE Academies that the ILO has been organizing since 2010 – additional information on this topic can be found on the Collective Brain knowledge-sharing platform.

The rapid transformation in the world of work, due to the processes of digitalization, migration and ecological transition, requires workers to learn how to “move” in the labour market. To learn more about this topic, I suggest reviewing the ILO document The Social and Solidarity Economy and the Future of Work.

Obtaining financial resources is undoubtedly a necessity for all enterprises that want to undertake a productive activity with or without having the maximization of profit as the objective. For the latter, many things are changing in order to promote realities, that are becoming increasingly popular, such as organizations for production that do not have profit maximization as their sole objective. There is ILO research, including eight country cases on Financial Mechanisms for Innovative SSE Ecosystems that can provide some guidance in this regard.

Finally, with respect to the digital transition, the pandemic has accelerated the process of change, exasperating aspects that will further transform the world of work. Addressing the digital transition quickly is a must in order to build territorial environments where companies, citizens and institutions can undertake further dialogue and co-construct more inclusive and sustainable public policies (see The Future of Work in the Digital Economy, ILO, September 2020).



Roberto Di Meglio

Senior Specialist on Local Development and Social and Solidarity Economy, ILO Geneva