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“Sustainability offers a competitive advantage for positioning oneself among stakeholders”

social innovation and sustainability

The present and future of innovation depends on it being socially responsible. For this reason, Zabala Innovation has created the Social Innovation area of expertise. “All innovative processes can or must be responsible, anticipating and avoiding any negative social impact and maximising the positive ones”, says its manager, Leire Martiarena, in this interview in which she explains the importance of social innovation and sustainability.

What exactly is socially responsible innovation?

It is innovation that takes into account the impact of transformations on society and seeks to have a positive effect on it. If, in addition, the innovative process is born with the purpose of offering a benefit to society and taking care of the planet, we can say that it is not only socially responsible, but that it has a social purpose.

And even if the main motivation for starting an innovative process is not to achieve a direct benefit for society, all innovative processes can (or have to) be responsible, anticipating and avoiding any negative social impact and maximising the positive impacts.

More officially, we can refer to the term Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI), a concept promoted by the European Commission in the Horizon 2020 funding programme, which refers to taking into account the risks that science and technology can generate for society, as a consequence of their transformative role.

Is the integration of the citizen in this model real or is there still a long way to go?

There are different levels of citizen integration, and their status is different depending on the maturity of technological development (TRL – Technology Readiness Level), the sector or the country in which the innovation is being developed.

What we can find at the moment is, for the most part, a partial integration through specific questionnaires or participation workshops carried out at the end of the development process, which serve mainly as validation, but which do not allow the integration of the citizen’s perspective and knowledge in a significant way. In general, there is a lack of culture, knowledge and experience about citizen participation and the different approaches to working together with society.

What competitive advantages does it offer?

The main advantage is the development of products and services that are more responsive to the needs of their users, i.e. they will compete better in the market. In addition, the integration of multiple perspectives in their design, manufacturing and testing allows a greater number of variables and alternatives to be taken into account, making them more environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

In this sense, sustainability is a variable that is becoming increasingly relevant in the markets, so integrating it as one of the axes or values of a product, service, or even organisation, offers a competitive advantage to position itself before different interest groups: in the last five years, sustainability has become increasingly important in the purchasing decisions of consumers, who take into account not only the environmental impact but also the guarantee of fairer working conditions when deciding on one product or another. According to recent studies, more than 30% of Spanish consumers would be willing to pay more for more sustainable products and services.

Finally, and although it is not a competitive advantage that is considered at the beginning, citizen participation and co-creation processes facilitate social acceptance of the new technology, which increases its chances of success in a later stage of scaling up the service or product.

What other stakeholders are there?

If we look at another important group, that of investors, we also see that in recent years the volume of funds earmarked for investments that follow ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) criteria has been increasing, which means that a sustainable organisation or project can have greater and better access to financing.

As far as public administrations are concerned, the inclusion of social clauses has become increasingly common and can be found in practically any tender or public funding programme, so that, at present, more than a competitive advantage, it can be considered a necessary requirement.

Is collaboration between the different social agents key to implementing this type of innovation?

It is essential. If the projects financed by the European Union have shown us anything, it is that innovation requires the fusion or joint work between different actors, combining different disciplines and areas of knowledge. Until now, a lot of emphasis has been placed on collaboration between public administration, private enterprise and academia, but in recent years the need to include another actor, society, has become evident.

So it is a matter of working together to find a middle ground between society’s needs and expectations, technological possibilities and natural and economic resources.

What are the main trends in this field today?

We are living in a time when citizen participation, through different mechanisms, is no longer an extra or a plus, but a requirement. Sustainability, including the social dimension, is increasingly valued and demanded in all areas. The public administration is subject to transparency laws that establish the obligation to inform and consult the public. For its part, the private sector began to integrate relations with its stakeholders through Corporate Social Responsibility, and is now supported by European directives such as the directive on disclosure of non-financial information and information on diversity. Along these lines, the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are setting a roadmap for action for both the public and private sectors.

In what way?

Since their publication in 2015, the SDGs have been a call for different actors to take responsibility for achieving sustainable development that respects the environment and people. Another interesting aspect of the SDGs is that they have given rise to a large number of studies and guides that analyse the potential of different economic sectors to contribute to the achievement of the goals, both positively and negatively, and the most appropriate measures to maximise their positive and minimise their negative impact.

How are these trends reflected in innovation and development projects?

The focus should be on the project being responsible, and this is required by the funding programmes. This means that the project will avoid any negative environmental and social impacts. Therefore, we set a minimum requirement here, which asks us to carry out a social impact analysis.

On the other hand, citizen participation allows us to integrate the knowledge of different stakeholders into the development process in order to design better solutions. In practical terms, this translates into continuous communication with stakeholders and the implementation of co-design and co-creation processes.

This collaborative process allows us to increase the Societal Readiness Level (SRL) of the technology, which should advance as the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) does.

Which sectors are the most advanced in this respect?

We are seeing major transformations in more traditional organisations and companies. Sectors such as health, energy, extractive industries, mobility and, in recent years, all those related to consumer goods, such as the textile and agri-food industries, have seen greater development in terms of social responsibility.

It is no coincidence that these sectors have a history of social and environmental conflict and controversy due to unsustainable practices that have resulted in negative impacts on both society and the environment. The need to transform these sectors, in terms of sustainability and social responsibility, has meant that they have made more progress than others over the last decade.

How does the European Union support social innovation and sustainability?

It does so in a cross-cutting manner, including sustainability, social innovation and citizen participation as cross-cutting aspects of innovation and development projects.

If we understand social innovation as a product, service or process that seeks to respond to a social need, any innovation project, even the most technological ones, has the potential to generate social innovation. This cross-cutting nature is what the European Commission has sought to reflect through the development of social innovation, citizen participation and co-design in all areas of research and development, from health to the bioeconomy, including information technologies and advanced manufacturing.

In addition, there is a specific unit within the European Commission, DG Growth, which promotes the social economy.

What are its main funding programmes?

The European Commission supports social innovation through the European Social Fund, where the transfer of funds takes place mainly at Member State and regional level, and the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI), which offers some funding lines, mainly focused on social economy, training and job creation.

How are you supported in this area, along which lines are you working?

Within social innovation, Zabala Innovation works in two areas: the definition and implementation of co-design and co-creation processes, including communication and relations with different stakeholders, including citizens; and on the other hand, the study and measurement of the social impact of a project or technology.

At the moment, we are the partner in charge of ensuring that an innovation project is responsible and sustainable, and we carry out this work of “interpretation” between the technological and economic language and the more social or day-to-day language.

As these are cross-cutting activities, we offer this support in sectors such as energy, manufacturing, climate change adaptation and mobility, among others.

What are the main challenges currently facing your area?

Raising awareness and training on social innovation and social responsibility, and also working together with other actors to agree and develop social impact measurement methodologies that can be applied as standard in the future, ensuring the rigorousness of social impact analysis. Social innovation and social responsibility have a key role to play in ensuring that technological and economic transformations contribute to the well-being of society and do not result in greater inequalities.


In this video you can learn more about the work of the Social Innovation Area of Zabala Innovation.