Beth Perry, Catherine Durose and Liz Richardson reflect on the findings of the Jam and Justice Action Research Collective in Greater Manchester and discuss how social innovation can support citizen participation. This article was originally published on Open Access Government.

Definitions of social innovation focus on social processes to generate new ideas that work to address unmet social needs. Innovations are social in their ends and in their means. Done well, social innovation can be one way of meeting global goals around meaningful participation in decision-making, recognised as a key priority for cities in the United Nations New Urban Agenda. But putting this into practice is tricky.

Greater Manchester, in the North of England, is a city-region with 2.8 million people. It was the first English city-region to agree a deal for greater devolved powers from central government. In 2017, residents elected their first Mayor to head up a new Combined Authority, with the ten local authorities. The deal was criticised for being made behind closed doors; many people asked how devolution could be an opportunity for greater citizen participation in addressing substantive policy concerns.

In 2016 researchers from the Universities of Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham, with the Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation, brought together an Action Research Collective (ARC) to co-produce ideas to tackle this challenge. Through the project Jam and Justice: Co-producing Governance for Social Innovation, the ARC set out to examine how cities could be governed differently.

A set of test-and-learn projects were initiated and rolled out from the ARC – on topics including spatial planning, energy policy, procurement, local democracy, youth engagement, political engagement, health and social care, digital innovation and the solidarity economy.

Through our work we offer fresh insights into three basic tenets of social innovation: its social means, novelty and ends. These confirm but also challenge conventional policy wisdom.

Co-production means ‘social’ innovation processes

Co-production can make a positive contribution to socialising innovation processes. Co-production means taking diverse expertise seriously in the framing, design and development of policy. Social is not only being together but knowing together. Socialised processes of knowledge production enable the generation of ideas, free from the usual constraints of policy-settings. Co-production values citizens as experts alongside professionals or academics and opens up what evidence is needed for policy.

The ARC’s projects used creative methods to open up policy imaginations.

For instance, one project developed in collaboration with the Carbon Coop developed participatory energy walks around the city, ending with a pie and pint in the pub. The walks created public awareness and pressure to open up policy agendas around the municipalisation of energy. The project also showed that social innovation is possible on technical issues, as well as areas usually reserved for public engagement.

One participant in our procurement project reflected that ‘if we take people that work in this field and create space outside their work, we create opportunities for new things to happen’.

Across our projects, we found that getting the right physical spaces and social interactions for social idea generation are key. Our projects engaged with citizens in open and ‘popular’ spaces rooted within neighbourhoods, as well as opening up privileged spaces usually reserved for officials.

Social innovations are not always ‘new’

Politicians and decision-makers often cherish ‘new’ ideas. There is a lot invested in promoting places as cutting-edge and in the need to appeal to the electorate through emphasising a break with what went before, or to demonstrate distinctive value for funders (May and Perry, 2018).

Our ARC projects did generate original ideas, but also took inspiration from many sources. Sometimes ideas are new to a place or policy setting. Putting existing ideas into imaginative orderings and contexts is also a form of innovation. Policy should seek to disincentivise reinventing the wheel by valuing learning and sharing in socialised processes.

We identified different social innovation practices that sit alongside the search for ‘new’ ideas: Remembering means looking to the past to learn from what has been tried, succeeded and failed; Borrowing involves adapting and testing existing models of citizen engagement in new policy and place-based contexts; Translating is important in ensuring that ideas can be acted on through communicating existing and new ideas in a relevant way to different audiences; Synthesising focuses on collating and integrating perspectives and ideas into new constellations; Validating can be useful in grounding existing policy, through engagement with the practicalities of implementation; finally, Questioning means reframing policy issues to open up new challenges and horizons.

We need new ways to evaluate ‘social ends’

Defining social innovation in terms of ‘social ends’ draws attention to the distribution of value resulting from innovation processes. Our ARC projects engaged more than 400 discrete individuals and led to a number of evidenced changes to policies to bring urban justice issues into greater focus. Significant impacts include reframing policy ideas, seeding new models or approaches, infrastructuring relationships through new or strengthening relationships and changing mindsets by creating space for perspectives to shift.

A critical issue is how we develop metrics for evidencing and evaluating the outcomes of complex, messy, distributed social processes, like social innovation and co-production. As we argue in our article in Nature (Durose, Richardson and Perry, 2018), existing ways of measuring and evaluating co-production are inadequate. Long-term social processes enhance the importance of tracking impacts and outcomes to monitor intended and unintended effects.

Critically, we need extended peer communities to assess the value of social innovation and the extent to which social ends are met. What constitutes success? Who determines what ‘ends’ social innovation should meet?

For social innovation to be part of the mix in realising global goals, citizens also need to participate meaningfully in assessing its outcomes.

Read the interim report on Co-producing the City.