Perspectives on Social Enterprises in Rural Europe: Academia and Practice at the RurInno Symposium

The symposium “Intermediaries in the countryside: Social Enterprises as Drivers of Social Innovation in Rural Europe” was held on 7th and 8th December 2017 at the Adam Mickiewicz University Poznan in Poland. The attendees from across Europe experienced an event that brought together perspectives from research and practice. While the first day of the symposium was dedicated to social enterprise practitioners and their perspectives on rural development and the trainings provided in the corresponding RurInno project, the second day focused on the state of research regarding social enterprises and innovation in rural Europe. The symposium was led by the overall question of how rural social enterprises foster social innovation and contribute to rural change. Starting point of the discussion were the outcomes and findings of the EU funded research and training project RurInno.

First day’s core were the social entrepreneurs’ reflections on the benefits they received through their involvement in the RurInno project. Martin Hollinetz from OTELO (Austria) stated that the RurInno trainings provided time and opportunity to reflect on one’s own work and on sometimes diverging approaches presented by the other involved social enterprises. To him, this was very valuable as possibilities for reflection are rare in the day-to-day business. The interactive format of a “story-telling café” enabled the participants to share their personal experiences and meanings of rural regions and social enterprises that paved the way for subsequent discussions.

The second day of the event was dominated by the exchange of scientific outcomes generated in a number of research projects and studies around social enterprises and innovation in rural regions. The talks and discussions revealed similarities of positions and perspectives but also an understanding about topics that call for further discussions. Gabriela Christmann, coordinator of the RurInno project, summarised three common insights. First, the symposium showed that there doesn’t exist a single type of social enterprise but a variety of organisational forms which are subsumed under the term social enterprise. Social enterprises can be described by means of three criteria which are – according to the EMES network – entrepreneurial thinking, social mission and participatory governance. Second, rural social enterprises can be described as intermediaries, which interconnect rural communities with supra-regional networks and support structures. The connectedness of social enterprises enables them to identify and re-contextualise new ideas and to mobilise resources, which is crucial for fostering social innovation. Third, according to Bettina Bock, social innovation can be regarded as a term that comprises three aspects: the social action of the innovation, the social responsibility of the innovation and the innovation of the society. Referring to this, Gabriela Christmann called for an analytical rather than a normative understanding of “social innovation”.