What makes local innovation work?

How can places innovate to address social problems? This was the question we faced with last week while working with city officials and area-based staff to think about tackling urban deprivation in Malmö (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark).

Malmö is an interesting case study for local social innovation. The city has established a global reputation for innovation on environmental sustainability with the Western Harbour development on the site of an old shipyard; using green building techniques, renewable energy sources, sustainable transport, green spaces and great architecture to create a striking new residential and business neighbourhood.

Now the authorities want to transfer this experience of environmental innovation to tackling some of the city’s most challenging social problems. Malmö, unlike many other Swedish cities, has an ethnically diverse population. Immigrant communities from Iran, Iraq, Somalia and former Yugoslavia live in the most deprived neighbourhoods, where housing conditions are poor, unemployment is over 50% and an eight year difference in life expectancy reflects the degree of health inequality in the city.

The Malmö Commission (set up in 2010 to tackle health inequalities) is one element of the city’s social innovation strategy; another crucial aspect is the Area Programmes, established in four of the most challenging urban neighbourhoods – Herrgården, Holma-Kroksback, Lindängen and Seved. The Area Programmes will be the focus for local social innovation – identifying, piloting and prototyping new approaches to social problems from school to increasing collaboration between NGOs and public agencies.

Our workshops brought together teams from the Area Programmes, city officials from Malmö and neighbouring Copenhagen, local NGOs, academics from Malmö University and staff from the Malmö Commission, to focus on practical methods and approaches for tackling urban deprivation.

The sessions started with lessons on creating the right conditions for place-based innovation – starting from urgent need; starting small – practical examples of innovation will convince more people of the potential for change than any amount of policy. They then moved on to case studies from Europe, the US and Australia, then looked at prompts and tools for thinking differently about unmet social needs.

One of the key questions from our earlier research into place-based innovation, is how organisations transfer the lessons and experience of successful innovation in one place or service to other places and at different scales. Malmö’s aspiration to use its leadership in environmental innovation as a foundation for social innovation across the city will be interesting to follow.

Resources from the Hands-on Social Innovation Workshop