Rise of Europe’s citizen innovator

Sensemaking / Rise of Europe’s citizen innovator

How can individuals accelerate the EU's transition to sustainability, asks Gemma Adams

By Gemma Adams / 20 Apr 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Citizen Innovation. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

What roles can individuals – as citizens, consumers, users and communities of interest – play in accelerating the fundamental transitions we need for a sustainable Europe? EU-InnovatE is a project exploring how the ‘users’ of products and services can help drive innovation to make sustainable lifestyles normal in Europe. It teams Forum for the Future, the Academy of Business in Society and 11 universities, including Copenhagen Business School, Cranfield and the Technische Universität München, to investigate the opportunities, looking to the past, present and future. Working alongside the researchers is a network of ‘future shapers’ who have experience of innovation, entrepreneurship and sustainable lifestyles, and who live right across Europe.

Why think about innovators beyond entrepreneurs, businesses and government funded programmes? Digital data, platforms and services mean everyone now has the tools to communicate their ideas, forge collaborations, build prototypes and develop them – and we are already using them to create whole new ways of organising, living, producing and consuming. Able to operate across traditional boundaries, future citizens and ‘users’ will have both the motivation and means to tackle the sustainability challenges that are outstripping business and governments.

An EU-InnovatE survey of 10 European countries found that that 3 in 1,000 people are ‘user’ innovators, motivated to tackle environmental and social issues, and creating bespoke items through personal passion rather than for work or profit. Citizen and user-driven innovation isn’t new. What has changed is the accessibility of both vast amounts of information and software capabilities to store, manage and interpret it: this transforms the scale and pace at which ideas can spread and collaboration can happen, for all sorts of purposes, across the world. We’ve made, baked, grown and crafted at home for centuries. Henry Ford’s earliest customers hacked their vehicles to turn them into farm machinery, mobile grocery shops and ambulances, and it was passionate, inventive user groups that came up with the skateboard, snowboard, surfboard and mountain bike. Today, enthusiasts are doing it all: from launching mini-satellites to biohacking glow-in-the-dark plants.

What makes citizen and user-driven innovation interesting for sustainability is the potential to cultivate the aspirations, beliefs and goals needed for social change. While markets concentrate on intellectual property and technological innovation, citizens and ‘users’ are free to innovate in the gaps above and between. From the New Citizenship Project’s quest to change the story of the individual in society from consumer to citizen to the unMonastery – a place to rethink ‘economic fictions’ as a route to social innovation that hosts projects addressing the disconnect between space, employment and social services. As citizens and enthusiasts, we have the ability to dream and imagine the institutionally impossible – and that’s the opportunity for big change.

Big businesses can play a role in working with ‘user’ innovators to cultivate social change too: some already involve citizens and other stakeholders as part of innovation processes to generate more-sustainable products and services. However, EU-InnovatE’s research found that they are often hampered from taking these to market by organisational incentives and decision-making frameworks, and that the citizens themselves experienced most change through the process. Collectively is blazing a trail: this non-profit, co-funded platform for inspiring change connects with millennials to innovate on sustainability issues that matter to them. Participating brands are getting to know their future consumer and encouraging demand for sustainability, making it easier to shift their portfolios.

Beyond the traditional structure of companies, people are finding new ways to organise themselves and act on their visions. Citizens, entrepreneurs, groups and organisations are coming together in new constellations. These emerging social models and forms of exchange distribute power and make new behaviours possible at scale, creating the conditions for whole systems to change.

Italian start-up CiBio is using relationships built at the local farmers’ market in Milan to solve problems like how to re-create the ‘lost’ bread supply chain and how to get local produce to restaurants at scale. Set up by Slow Food Italia, it is a model for forging alternative value networks and food economies.

The Hunziker Project in Switzerland is experimenting with new forms of living that are way ahead of the market. It’s the next generation of Cadbury’s Bourneville – a village in the UK that the chocolate-maker redesigned in the 19th century to improve the health and fitness of its workforce. The difference is that the Hunziker Project was set up by 30 non-profit co-operatives to act as their ‘innovation lab’. Citizen and ‘user’ innovators look set to shape Europe’s future and to throw up a whole host of new opportunities to reach for, and also to resist, transformation and sustainability. Are we ready?

Gemma Adams is Head of Innovation at Forum for the Future.

Art by webAtelier

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