This paper gives an overview of over two decades of research projects on the study of the relationship between local development and social innovation (SI) made by the international action research network coordinated by the first author and funded by the European Commission. It explains the need to study the relationships between local development and opportunities for human development, and the aspirations for an epistemological turn, away from local growth to local development, and from disciplinary to inter- and trans-disciplinary perspectives. Using a chronological overview, the paper concentrates on questions related to the specific objectives of the projects and their epistemological (ontological, theoretical, methodological and validation) challenges. It explains how by meeting these challenges, over the years the network built a Social Innovation Action Research framework that can now be used as a reference for mutual enrichment between different approaches in SI action research.
Moulaert F. & Mehmood A. (2019) Towards a social innovation (SI) based epistemology in local development analysis: lessons from twenty years of EU research. European Planning Studies, 1-20. Researcher
Frank Moulaert Emeritus Professor of Economics and Spatial Planning Planning & Development, Faculty of Engineering, Catholic University of Leuven Heverlee, Belgium
The interview transcript
Hi, welcome to coffee break with researchers, today I’m at a regional innovation policies conference in Florence and I’m having a coffee break with Frank Moulaert, he is an emeritus professor of economics and spatial planning.
Hello Frank, thank you for accepting this invitation to a coffee break, how are you doing?
I think I’m fine yeah if you’re not going to ask too many difficult questions I think it will work out today.
I would like to talk with you about a paper you wrote, in which you take a historic perspective on how to study social innovation in regions and localities, could you please tell me what the paper was about?
So it’s a short-term historic perspective of course, it is basically looking back on what we did with the network, which afterwards we called action research Network, social innovation or network on action research for social innovation, in the article, we especially analyze the way we have worked, we have done research and especially action research on social innovation in neighborhoods, in cities, in regions and so on, at a very start we were very mainstream and what we did we followed economic theories on local economic development, but very soon we found out that if you want to work with stakeholders and actors that are active in in real local development strategies you need a much broader view of what are the possibilities what are the needs of the people how you should build new social relationships what social political transformations are needed and so on so, we were forced by circumstances to change our methods quite rapidly.
I see that a key notion of your paper is social innovation action research, could you please give us a definition of it?
The definition I mean just give it like that is a bit intelligible I would say it’s better to point out evolution how we got to it, I mean in the very beginning we used economic theories of local development as I said we relied on so-called territorial innovation models, we looked at classical innovation policies, development strategies and so on and and we did that by interviewing key actors by looking at statistics on economic performance social performance political performance and so on, so most of the people who were really concerned by local development actions and policy were not involved in what we were doing so bit by bit we developed a method, a methodology, which allowed people who were really concerned by local development to be part of the research and action process because roles got a bit hybridized and, in the end activists, politicians, local leaders became part of the research endeavour and we as researchers became also a bit of policy advisors, organizational advisors, and so on and we were especially careful in making sure that the involve people were expressing their needs for local development, very carefully, I mean they were typically social housing, need for good food, social services, which no longer existed in in neighborhoods that were very hard hit but by the crisis, but we were also very concerned to see that what people took as initiatives was really built on rediscovering solidarity bonding that had been broken down through crisis situations and and so on, and also rebuilding relationships with a with a political system with the local authorities with the regional government and so on, which also as we find out later after 10-15 years of research meant that we had to question the existent governance system and that we had to think much more in terms of bottomland governance and grassroot based political participation, for example, so action research means all this you use the traditional methods of analyzing quantitative analysis, you build a narrative of what is going on in a locality, you identify together with all involved partners what is relevant for the future development plan and all these goals beyond, goes quite a bit beyond what is normally called innovation policy, it involves as I said building social housing, it involves restoring local services, it involves improving air quality, it involves building or restoring parks, and green areas, so it’s it’s really a mix of different concerns, which could be stored under the umbrella of innovation, on the condition that innovation is defined in a different way, socially innovative innovation in a light, or if you include innovation in a broader package of developmen strategies and visions, which would then go back to the old school, as some say where development is much more than technology, much more than business organization, but also involves cultural development human development and so on.
Thank you for clarifying that. That’s very important to know so, which ones would you say are the key arguments of the paper?
I think I already explained them to quite a high extent, I mean the key arguments are that when you develop a methodology, you do it in interaction with the people who are concerned but by what you’re studying, but by what you work you want to organize in a way, so the methodology in many of the projects we we did to develop this research trajectory has also been negotiated with other partners, the so-called non research partners, activists saying I mean, what you’re telling there is not it’s not relevant because we experience it completely differently, so we asked them then how would you analyze that situation, what does it mean, to give you one example in Lisbon, and in the centre of Lisbon, we had to go in the in the homes of old people to understand what they wanted to happen as urban development of their neighborhood, and so on these are people for example that would never come to an official forum, to an official arena, so you have to go to their homes, same holds with illegal migrants, who are, what is are temporarily illegal, but in fact some of these illegal people stay for years in the same city so something has to be done with them as well, so that means that you have to interview in the street, you have to organize happenings to make sure that local politicians understand better what the housing needs are, what the food needs are, the health needs are, and so on, so methodology is built interactively it, conciliate s’ old methods quantitative, qualitative with you new methods so jointly built narratives are extremely important, ethnography with many writers and observers and participants, at the same time, collective ethnography is very important joint, Imagineering is extremely important, so it’s not just a consultancy office together with our local authorities, that will draw a map or a plan for a neighborhood, no this is a multi agent endeavor with a lot of social political mobilization, with a lot of cultural sensitivity and diversity taken into account.
That is very important to know, and I’m also interested in knowing what was your personal motivation in doing this research?
There was a negative and a positive motivation. The negative one was that I was fed up with the simplicity of technology, the simplicity of technological innovation, considering this as the recipe for getting out of the economic crisis of the 70s and 80s and Western Europe, for example, I understood from the very very beginning that this would not be sufficient, that it could only be part of a broader program, which would involve everything I just referred to in a way. The positive motivation was to play a role as an academic in locality building, in building capacity at a local level in working together with actors, and in different sectors of society, to build realistically realistic and and grounded strategies for Neighborhood Development, local development, regional development, I mean we have a host of examples and experiences that are described in bibliography of the paper, and also in the recent book I just published on advanced introduction to social innovation together with my good friend Diana McCallan from Australia.
Thank you for sharing that, and I finally want to ask you about the your opinion on the relevance of this future research on this field for policymaking.
Let me focus on the relevance of action research, I mean sharing research and actions between researchers, politicians, activists, citizens, concerned citizens and so on, I mean when you go in the streets today people are really fed up with politics and they react in very different ways, they vote in a racist way often without knowing that they’re doing that they are voting for a racist party, they vote for very radical options and so on, and twenty to thirty percent does not vote at all, I mean in a system like Belgium, where there is a committee chair voting, is mandate mandatory twenty to thirty percent down vote or vote blank or remain absent, so that’s a clear voice. I mean people withdraw from politics because they don’t trust politicians anymore and I understand why, it’s because we have too many salon politicians, we have too many politicians that are just concerned about around business or to be mild politicians, who do not understand the language of of the people, I mean too many people have to Pro on from day to day to survive, no home or hardly manage to rent a home, hardly manage to pay their mortgage, have to find for jobs and complementary jobs because the whole labor market is flexiblized and so on, so here lies in this model of action research also lies an opportunity for politicians to get involved with the kind of science that is much more connected to what’s going on the ground, and at the same time that is not disconnected from grant analysis of how the market works how institutions should be rebuilt and revisited and and so on.
Thank you very much for that, that’s indeed very important and relevant in our times, so those were my questions for today, I really thank you for having this time to chat with me and it was a pleasure for me to have you here in a coffee break and I wish you all the best and hope to see you.
Thank you very much, I hope the message is useful and would be nice to have some reactions to that message.
Thank you for watching. If you are interested in more details about this academic publication you can find here the link below, see you
next time bye-bye.