Defining social innovation

Despite being a vital part of the European Union's Europe 2020 Strategy [1] for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, social innovation is a term that is not widely recognised and fully understood by the general public. The European Commission, after widespread consultation with experts and interested partners, has defined social innovations defined as:

"... The development and implementation of new ideas (products, services and models) to meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations. It represents new responses to pressing social demands, which affect the process of social interactions. It is aimed at improving human wellbeing. Social innovations are innovations that are social in both their ends and their means. They are innovations that are not only good for society but also enhance individuals’ capacity to act." (European Commission, 2013:6 [2])

This serves as the central definition of social innovation for the Innovage project.

Linkages between social innovations

Social innovations can develop in similar ways in different places at different times either due to the process of policy transfer. This is the term used to describe the various ways in which ideas, policies, administrative arrangements and institutions in one political setting is used in the development of a similar approach in another setting [3].

This can be a conscious process with an example being recognised by an individual or organisation as operating successfully in one setting and a similar response being developed in another national context. There is also a degree of policy transfer when strikingly similar responses develop in different contexts at a similar time although seemingly without any knowledge or clear links between initiatives.

In a world in which there are many common challenges such as ageing, climate change or the fiscal sustainability of social policy provision then it is highly likely that the process of policy transfer will become ever more common as the world wide web enables people to disseminate and learn from experiences in a wide range of settings.

The field of social innovation is based on the assumption that there is a need to innovate, experiment and learn fast if we are to address the issues of an ageing population and other grand challenges that face contemporary societies [4]. Many social innovations are amenable to policy transfer although the economic, social, cultural and political circumstances will vary from place to place as well as over time meaning that their precise form differs. However, there are numerous social innovations that share a core idea and a similar approach – what could be termed a policy essence – that they share at least some social innovation DNA.

Family trees for social innovations

Telephone support services to prevent social isolation and loneliness

A clear example of policy transfer is the development of telephone support services to prevent social isolation and loneliness usually but not exclusively aimed at older people. There is good evidence that social isolation and loneliness have negative effects on people’s health and wellbeing at any stage of life [5, 6] and in contemporary society it is often older people who are most at risk of experiencing harm as social networks contract.

Filo d’Argento was developed in the early 1990s in Italy in the early by Auser, the Union of Retired People, and the Federation of Italian Trade Unions to provide a telephone service for older people who needed companionship. It gradually developed into a national service with more than 20,000 volunteers receiving over a million calls per year from over 230,000 people with older people involved across the whole project. This example directly inspired the development by Third Age Ireland of the Senior Help Line that launched with 32 volunteers offering six hours of listening per week in 1998 but has grown to operate for 12 hours a day on every day of the year with more than 300 volunteers.

Following the heatwave in France in 2003 that caused an estimated 15,000 excess deaths of mainly older people, the Auboutdufil (On the Line) voluntary organisation was established to provide a telephone contact service for the residents of Paris and Ill-de-France who were experiencing social isolation and loneliness. Around 170 volunteers receive approximately 5,000 calls per month and provide a friendly voice and telephone workshops on ageing well.

Finally, Silver Line was established in the UK after the television presenter and journalist Esther Rantzen wrote a newspaper article in 2011 discussing her experience of loneliness after bereavement. This rapidly lead to a pilot project funded by the Department of Health and Comic Relief, a major charity, and the establishment of Silver Line in 2012 followed by the award of a £5 million grant from the Big Lottery Fund in 2013 that enabled a national helpline to be launched.

These are just four examples from Italy, Ireland, France and the UK of a simple solution to a serious social issue and they have developed in different ways and rates but all share the same basic approach. Telephone help lines and befriending services for people at risk of social isolation and loneliness have developed in numerous other places but are far from universal.

There are potential health benefits for people at risk of social isolation and loneliness and also for the volunteers, who are often older people, who find a socially useful role. There is a case for the development of this provision in other places and for other ways to prevent social isolation and loneliness.

Preventive home visits

Another example of policy transfer is the Danish programme of preventive home visits that started in 1996 as a municipality responsibility within the health and social care system. It started invitations for twice yearly visits by community nurses to people over the age of 80 years who are living in their own home. The visits focus on health in the wider social context of the daily activities of life, social contacts, housing conditions and how people are managing to live independently.

In 1998 it was extended to cover people over the age of 75 years and from 2010 the visits are offered on an annual rather than twice a year basis. There is good evidence to show that preventive home visits benefited older people (80+), maintained the functional ability of older women and delayed admission to nursing homes.

In Slovenia in 1997 the Elderly for the Elderly project was started by the Slovene Association of Pensioners Organisations with volunteers, usually older women, visiting old people at risk of social exclusion and loneliness in the community. After a boost to funding in 2004 it was able to expand its operation and more than half of Slovenians aged 69 and over have received a visit as a result of this social innovation. More than 300,000 visits were made over the period from 2004 to 2012 and an estimated 4.4 million hours of voluntary work have resulted from the operation of the initiative.

Long Live the Elderly was started in 2004 by the Community of Sant Egidio, a Roman Catholic charity, with the support of local and central government to contact and support older people aged 75 years and over who are at risk of social isolation and likely to be in need of social support. The project started in response to the health crisis prompted by the heatwave of 2003 and the recognition that older people were at risk of being isolated in the community as their social networks diminished. It operates in parts of Rome, Naples and Novara and operates by training volunteers, often older people who have retired from paid work, to contact older people by telephone to offer social contact and support.

This has the potential to benefit older people receiving social support to live independently in the community for longer and the people providing contact and support who have gained a positive role in society after paid work. Older people have been involved with developing best practice within the project and it has been credited with playing a part in significantly reducing avoidable mortality, particularly due to heat related conditions, and lowering the number of hospital admissions.

Project Solitude was launched in Ghent in 2008 as part of its programme of becoming an age friendly city and involved social workers recruiting a cohort of volunteers, usually older women, to make home visits to older people at risk of social isolation and loneliness. The visits were used to encourage older people to participate in a range of social, educational, health and leisure projects that provide opportunities for social participation.

The projects included peer visiting service for people whose partner has recently died, social meals for people in their eighties in a local restaurant, visiting museums and galleries, volunteering with younger people and short courses on using computers and the internet. The Solitude project ran for five years and has been mainstreamed into Ghent’s active ageing policy indicating that its value has been recognised by local policy makers.

The Danish preventive home visits programme was not the first to be launched – a similar sort of project operated in the UK in 1990 but halted in 2004 – but it has proven to be effective and successful in the Danish context. The Slovenian, Italian and Belgian models use volunteers rather than community nurses showing how the social welfare context matters to how initiatives are organised and delivered and by whom.

The programmes all share a common thread of making home visits to older people with the aim of preventing social isolation and loneliness in order to maintain health and wellbeing in the community for as long as possible but do so in different ways due to the different social welfare contexts.

Inter-generational centres

There are several examples of socially innovative inter-generational centres that bring together people of all generations in one place for social activities, lifelong learning and social interaction. Inspired by experience from Japan, the German Federal Government’s Action Programme has supported the development of hundreds of inter-generational centres across the country to provide services for all generation under one roof.

Kindred by Choice in Salzgitter and House in the Park in Hamburg are examples of this approach that is based on supporting inter-generational interaction and challenging ageist assumptions. Many of the Mehrgenerationenhaus have developed into vibrant hubs in the community that provide opportunities for people of all ages and show the potential of inter-generational activity.

The inter-generational centre concept informed the operation of Soros Foundation’s Change Opportunities for Schools programme with the example of Tirza chosen as a case study for a €1.25 million project that operates in around 100 areas across rural Latvia in response to the financial crisis of 2008. The programme funds inter-generational activities and lifelong learning opportunities for people of all ages in order to promote social cohesion and solidarity in difficult economic times.

The House of the Fruits of Society in the small town of Murska Sobota (population 11,000) in Slovenia was established in 2008 to promote inter-generational activities and the transfer of knowledge across generations including traditional craft skills and learning to use computers. It is run by a charitable organisation, Slovene Philanthropy, with funding from a variety of sources and an initial evaluation showed positive effects among the more than 3,400 people who had used it.

Finally, the Generations Day Centre in Bucharest is a charitable organisation founded in 2009 and funded by the Princess Margarita of Romania Foundation. It provides activities for people of all ages, particularly those at risk of social exclusion, and promotes inter-generational exchange for mutual benefit.

There is a growing trend towards the development of inter-generational centres that provide a wide range of opportunities for people of all ages to learn new skills, share their knowledge and skills, to undertake a range of activities together and to develop greater understanding and social solidarity. Germany is leading the way in this area but there are examples from across new member states that show that this form of social innovation can thrive in a variety of social contexts.

Concluding comments

Some social innovations will thrive in particular circumstances but there are likely to be many that can be adopted and adapted as examples of policy transfer in this area. There are common challenges such as the prevention of long-term health conditions, improving mental health and wellbeing or promoting physical activity that can be addressed in a variety of ways across EU member states.

What is essential is that social innovations with potential, such as those identified as part of the Innovage project, are given the opportunity to flourish in a variety of social contexts and that they are evaluated so that their effects can be assessed and valuable lessons learned about what works, when, for whom and in what circumstances. It is critically important that the evidence base for social innovations is developed so that new ideas and approaches for the challenges of ageing can be developed, adopted and adapted in different social contexts.


[1] EUROPE 2020: A strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. European Commission.

[2] Guide to social innovation, European Commission, DG for Regional and Urban Policy and DG for Employment Social affairs and Inclusion, Brussels, 2013.

[3] Dolowitz, D. P. and Marsh, D. (2000) Learning from abroad: The role of policy transfer in contemporary policy-making. Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration, vol. 13, no. 1, January 2000, pp. 5–24.

[4] O'Sullivan, C., Mulgan, G., Vasconcelos, D. (2010) Innovating better ways of living in later life: Context, examples and opportunities. Young Foundation working paper, Young Foundation, London.

[5] House, J., Landis, K. and Umberson, D. (1988) Social relationships and health. Science, 241, pp. 540–544.

[6] Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. and Layton, J. B. (2010) Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review, PLoS Medicine, 7(7).