The role of the citizen as change agent seems to be growing exponentially in response to the volatility and uncertainty of our times. In Europe, this challenging context has been particularly defying in the South, where the recent financial meltdown and institutional crisis have transformed societies and shifted the structure of the political landscape. Here, in a situation of austerity, growing inequality, decline in household incomes and rising unemployment, the need for change and transformation has become clearer. It is frequently during a crisis that challenging assumptions and rethinking systems, lifestyles, governance, economy and society becomes a priority. People and communities take a more proactive stand in unlocking opportunities for the sustainable transformation of our societies.
In Southern Europe, we’ve seen citizen innovation take two forms. One is that individuals become relevant stakeholders in open sustainability innovation processes led by companies. They bring insights and participation to challenge conventional business models, products and services, co-creating new solutions. Second, they innovate themselves. They become entrepreneurs, create startups and cooperatives and harness the power of communities and technology to create disruptive sustainable innovation niches.
These observations are based on the findings of the European Commission-funded research project, EU InnovatE, and recorded in the report recently published by ESADE Business School “Innovating in search of Sustainability: Companies, Citizens and Entrepreneurs”, among other insights into how citizen sustainable innovation is gaining ground in Southern Europe.
1. Citizens innovating in co-creation processes with companies
In some of the cases analysed by EU InnovatE, complex issues arising from the harsh economic climate in Southern Europe - such as food waste and unemployment - were the starting point for companies to adopt open innovation processes incorporating citizen and other unusual stakeholder insights. Unilever Spain’s Soy Frigo programme shows how citizen participation allowed the company to move from a conventional CSR approach to collaborative sustainable innovation. The Spanish company, in partnership with local authorities, expert NGOs and citizens, realised that fighting high youth unemployment should be one of the key pillars of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan in the country. As a result, the launch of a new ‘bottom of the pyramid’ approach in its ice-cream division distribution, implied an important shift in their business model. Thanks to this project, approximately 500 young people are trained each year to run their own ice-cream business, enhancing their micro-entrepreneurship skills and increasing their chances to be employed or become entrepreneurs. Citizen involvement brought out insights related to the training modules, the way the micro-business should be run and even the locations where the ice creams should be distributed. This made the project more grounded, replicable and scalable, and also assisted in enhancing its credibility. Currently, the project is being replicated with success in Portugal, Greece, Italy, Hungary, the UK and Poland. The project is part Unilever global strategy of creating 100.000 jobs by 2020 globally.
The Spanish organic supermarket chain Ecoveritas, leveraged citizens insights and concerns about food waste to launch a new product line adopting circular economy principles, Cuina Veritas. The origin of the project was the collaboration between the company, consumers, a food technology and a social inclusion foundation, mainly through co-creation product development workshops. Cuina Veritas principles are helping to improve waste management across the value chain and Ecoveritas is moving towards a closed-loop approach. This is due, in part, to the involvement and insights of its customers and broader citizen insights in the ideation and development phases of the process.
Citizen-driven sustainability innovation is not only a domain reserved for large companies. Small ventures with an open and collaborative mindset can benefit and become more competitive when incorporating citizen insights as well. Kard Architects, a small family-owned firm in Greece worked with students, parents, teachers, the School owners and other local stakeholders to create a prototype primary school in the North of the country, offering an experience of a new approach to schooling with sustainability at its heart. Today, the school is considered benchmark in Greece, inspiring not only ecological and efficient building construction, but also a way of addressing sustainable education and shifting lifestyles in a country hit hard by the crisis.
2. Citizens innovating as sustainable entrepreneurs
Citizens with an entrepreneurial approach, drive, and idealistic passion to change their circumstances, are developing their own business solutions to environmental or social challenges, putting them consciously at the core of new ventures.
This is the case for Social Car, a car-sharing platform between citizens, and Noem, a prefabricated construction system based on locally sourced natural materials which also minimises and controls CO2 emissions at every step of the process. The founders of both enterprises are women with a strong corporate managerial background, who have identified a social and environmental market gap and became entrepreneurs with a clear commitment to change the mobility and housing market in Spain towards sustainability.
In some cases, organized citizens challenge current ways of production and consumption by joining forces as members of a broader community or creating cooperative schemes. In Southern Europe, the combination of lack of trust in institutions due to the crisis and a return to sharing schemes and peer-to-peer values means such collaborations aim for system-wide disruption. Examples include Som Energia, a non-profit cooperative focused on producing and marketing energy of renewable origin, and the Food Assembly (La Colmena que dice sí), which connects farmers directly to consumers and encourages local food distribution and consumption. In both cases, technology, network development and community engagement allow a faster adoption of sustainable lifestyles in their community members.
The transition to sustainable societies needs citizens in both roles, inspiring change while co-creating existing corporate innovation systems, and becoming entrepreneurs and shaping sustainable communities. While companies might be more incremental in their approach, they have potential for impact at scale and influence to shift legislation. Entrepreneurs and cooperatives are key to disrupting traditional markets and business models, creating new niches of sustainable innovation and facilitating the transition towards a new paradigm.
Entrepreneurs in Southern Europe live in turbulent times, yet, it seems the crisis has been a catalyst for innovation in learning networks, unusual and transparent collaborations, a deeper systems thinking approach, greater personal and organisational resilience, and a willingness to seize challenges as opportunities for the creation of more inclusive and sustainable societies.
Sonia Ruiz is founder at NOIMA, Meaningful Strategies (https://noima.net/), a boutique sustainability innovation and communications consultancy based in Barcelona and working internationally with change makers around the world. She is also a researcher at the Institute of Social Innovation of ESADE Business School.