Bill Slee: “Social innovation is most important where markets and state have limited scope to make positive changes”

Bill Slee will lead the workshop ‘Connecting with the ‘hard-to-reach’ in rural areas’

Although he enjoys a mid-retirement status at the James Hutton Institute, Bill Slee is still very active as a researcher, but also as a citizen committed to social innovation in rural areas, paying attention to those groups with fewer opportunities. Expectant at the celebration of the ERP, he hopes to continue weaving networks to work towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

What has attracted your interest in this topic?

My forty years of experience as a researcher in rural development is now balanced by a more local level of practice in community projects. In both I have seen how often funding supports the privileged and articulate and better-connected communities and tends to leave aside less advantaged groups and places. If we want rural development to be more inclusive, at that ethos is central to the European project, we need to find ways to reach out to more disadvantaged groups with policies.

You are going to talk not only ‘areas’, but also about ‘people’. What kind of people can be marginalised in Europe, in concrete in rural areas?

The marginalized include many groups: the long term poor, those without employment, those with limited education and skills, refugees, ethnic minorities such as Roma people, the LGBT community, women, elderly people, immobile people, those with physical and/or mental health problems; young people; women in strongly patriarchal societies.

What are their problems?

Poverty; access to jobs, access to public and private services, effective representation, weakness and/or absence of supporting civil society organisations; social and physical isolation, ostracism, being caught in a poverty trap of semi-subsistence, inability to access limited public services

“Actions by civil society actors can have a crucial role in enhancing wellbeing”

You are currently working in social innovation and in the SIMRA project – Social Innovation in Marginalised Rural Areas. What does this project consist of? 

It is a large EU funded research with a focus on social innovation, which we define as civil society actors working together or with other agencies to address problems and challenges frequently in a bottom-up community-based way.  We are looking in depth at a number of case studies and working on innovative actions with a number of groups.  We are seeking to draw out common threads.  We are developing policy and practice briefs and trying to better understand the success factors in social innovation in fields as diverse as reducing forest fires, improving young peoples and elderly peoples social care, community energy, community forestry, integrating refugees, supporting new entrants into rural areas and so on.

Normally, when we talk about ‘innovation’, we think in ‘technology’. But ‘social’ it’s an important factor to include.

Creating new formal and informal institutions in civil society may be critical in developing effective responses to contemporary challenges in rural Europe.  Where markets are weak and national and local government has limited resources, actions by civil society actors can have a crucial role in enhancing wellbeing.  But what makes an effective civil society organisation, a charitable trust or an NGO effective?  Why can they operate more efficiently than the state or the market?  What are the limits to their reach? Building collaborative possibilities and creating social capital through new institutions lies at the heart of social innovation.  But policy can help and in somewhere like Scotland policies for community empowerment have contributed hugely to enhancing the opportunities.  Sometimes we need to combine policy innovation, social innovation and technical innovation to deliver improvements. But we need to focus not only on smart villages, but on making the less smart, smarter.

“We need to focus not only on smart villages, but on making the less smart, smarter”

What is the role of social innovation driving transforming in rural areas?

Social innovation is most important where markets and state have limited scope to make positive changes and where people are willing to act collaboratively to make improvements to wellbeing, in actions as diverse as creating new third sector social care arrangements for elderly people, reducing the risk and spread of forest fires, supporting refugees in their efforts to integrate.  But the role goes beyond plugging the gaps.  It is about empowering people in local place making, building on a sense of belonging and collaborating to make improvements.

What projects or experience will be able to know in this workshop?

We will use examples from the research and practical examples which I am involved in.  As a semi-retired researcher who has lived in the same community for 30 years I am now deeply involved in community action at a local level.

“In ERP I hope to meet people committed who connect to grand societal challenges”

What expectations do you have of ERP?

ERP is new to me.  I hope to meet people who are committed to trying to build a better future for Europe’s rural areas, not in an isolationist backward-looking way, but in practical, forward-looking and inclusive ways which connect to grand societal challenges such as climate change, social inclusion, poverty reduction and in delivering progress in the Sustainable Development Goals.