Why we need social innovations in mountain regions, and how to make them happen

by | Aug 7, 2023 | European stakeholders

Authors: Brigitte Portner, Marlène Thibault, and Susanne Wymann von Dach (Mountain Research and Development)

As we enter a new era of change and uncertainty, social innovations hold the potential to produce appropriate, context-specific solutions to local problems. Considering a few key factors can help social innovations in mountain regions thrive.

What are social innovations?

Growth-independent value chains promoting local products, peer-to-peer training groups, craftsmakers’ associations, and agrifood movements: these are all examples of social innovations that are happening around the globe, creating benefits for local mountain economies and communities. Innovation is about doing things differently.

The concept of “social innovations” is high on researchers’ and policy-makers’ agendas, as social innovations have proved to help societies embrace change and manage risk and uncertainty. Although social innovations can be defined in different ways, most definitions describe them as collective and collaborative endeavours that benefit society and may result in more equal power relations as well as new products or services.

What is special about mountains?

This is particularly important in mountain regions. Their unique social-ecological systems are particularly vulnerable to the global polycrisis. The various impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss can disrupt fragile mountain ecosystems and reduce the resilience of local mountain communities.

Additionally, mountain regions often face socio-economic challenges, such as high poverty, outmigration rates, and limited access to healthcare, education, and markets. The combination of remoteness, rugged terrain, inadequate infrastructure, and lack of economic opportunities further exacerbates challenges and increases marginalization and disparities in mountain regions.

What are key factors for mountain economies?

Supportive policies are crucial in ensuring that social innovations produce benefits for local mountain economies and communities. Mountain economies are typically shaped by the interplay of several key factors, namely infrastructure and services, institutions and governance, actor diversity and capacities, and natural resources endowment (see Figure 1). Global change and market integration can offer prospects while also presenting constraints to sustainable development in mountain regions.

Figure 1: Key factors and their interactions define a mountain region’s prospects for sustainable development and the constraints it faces (Wymann von Dach and Ruiz Peyré 2020:10)
Creating an enabling environment for social innovations

To support social innovations and address related opportunities and challenges, policies should:

  • Enable new collaborations and encounters between different actors. This includes promoting knowledge exchange and knowledge weaving between local and external actors and initiatives.
  • Plan and decide inclusively and ensure equitable access to quality public services.
  • Provide support such as finance or opportunities to expand entrepreneurial mindsets and personal agency, particularly during the start-up phase of social innovation initiatives.

Furthermore, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research is crucial to understand the systemic and integrative nature of social innovations in mountain regions. Accordingly, policies that are supportive of social innovations should include funding options for inter- and transdisciplinary research projects.

Special attention should be given to projects that provide space for the unexpected, as serendipity has the potential to innovate research itself in unexpected ways. Serendipity also plays an important role in social innovations by fostering unexpected discoveries, connections, and opportunities that can lead to novel and impactful solutions and pathways.

Social innovations contribute to sustainable and just futures in mountains

As we enter a new era of change and uncertainty, social innovations in mountains offer solutions and pathways – to address regional challenges, enhance the resilience and well-being of mountain societies and ecosystems, and contribute to sustainable mountain economies and communities. Overall, social innovations are crucial to help ensure sustainable futures for mountain regions.