Citizen-driven social innovations

“Citizen engagement in social innovation refers to the many ways in which more diverse actors can be brought into the process of developing and then sustaining new solutions to social challenges – essentially how citizens can be involved in developing social innovations and in social projects which are innovative“  – Davies, A and Simon, J, (2013). Engaging Citizens in Social Innovation

Starting with this definition of citizen engagement, in this article, we are answering two questions related to the topic of citizen participation and social innovation and also give some good examples to get inspired. 

1. What is citizen participation and how does it relate to Social Innovation? 

Citizen participation is nowadays seen as critical to building trust in public institutions and as a strong tool for development and strengthening of democracy. It is perceived as an instrument for developing social cohesion in communities and implementing new solutions in provision of public services. It can produce partnerships between public, private and civil society sector in a community, leading to increasing the community’s problem-solving capacities. In this way it paves the road to long-term development and benefits for all community stakeholders involved. Citizen participation also contributes to major improvements in local government, including better decision-making process that takes different views in consideration, stronger partnerships with local community, which leads to better understanding of local government policies and finally, the trust necessary to implement those policies. It is important to be realistic about what citizen participation really can do, change and move in local communities and at the same time be aware of the risks it involves. 

Citizen participation can occur on different levels: within local communities or on a wider, national or even international level. Therefore, two contexts of citizen participation can be identified: engagement in various structures and institutions of democracy, and engagement related to the community and other informal groups. Within the first context, citizen engagement is thought to strengthen the legitimacy and accountability of governments and other democratic institutions. Citizen participation in decision making and policy design is believed to contribute to more effective public services, as they will enjoy greater public support. In the context of community-related engagement activities, citizen participation is perceived to contribute to increased social capital within the community, as well as to bring positive impact on individuals in the community, increasing their capabilities, confidence and feeling of connection with the community.

It is important to note that people take part in citizen engagement activities voluntarily. They will take on an active role when engaging in a certain collective action. The individuals involved in such activities will be strongly connected to a social mission, which will be the common purpose of their endeavour.

2. How to encourage citizens to participate in decision making?

One way that has been proved very effective is Design thinking or a Human-centred design. Although effective for creating innovative solutions has not been always connected with social innovation nor the process of social innovating. But the two are interrelated. So, the question is what is Design Thinking and how is it related to social innovation? Design Thinking is a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success. It is a new approach to creating systematic solutions for complex social challenges, which puts the user’s needs in the centre of the designer’s interest. The approach was first embraced by businesses but is now widely used by non-profits and the public sector ( Brown, T. & Wyatt, J. Design Thinking for Social Innovation). The concept of design thinking is close to social innovation approach since it includes creativity, prototyping and implementation so it is easy to implement it in the innovation process.


Human-Centred Design Toolkit

This toolkit was designed specifically for NGOs and social enterprises that work with impoverished communities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America by IDEO design company. The tool helps users, that is staff and volunteers, in activities such as building skills, running workshops and implementing ideas. It has subsequently led to innovations that have enhanced the lives of people in these impoverished communities. 


During our SIKE-related workshop on the topic of Human-centred design, participants have developed great and very innovative solutions for identified challenges at the level of city neighbourhoods. One interesting solution was a mobile app called “Parking-Spot” that has answered the challenge: “How can we organize traffic regulation, inadequate parking and generally more efficient traffic for the residents of Srednjak (city quarter in Zagreb)? ” The app would enable seekers of a parking space to easier and quicker find parking inside and outside the neighbourhood. It would also provide quick and easy contact with parking lot owners; save time and money (we know in advance where we can park, more convenient parking spaces than city parking spaces) and would provide a comparison of prices from various providers and existing parking spaces. The app would also be able to track and remember our movements; this would provide the app with suggestions for where we can park before we reach our destination. The app would be free to download for easy market expansion and feedback from app users.

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