SOLUNI_LOGO150dpiStriking oil or mining lithium depends
far more on knowing where to dig
than on the digging itself.

Larry Keeley

Innovation is hot. In modern business it is a must to be innovative. Papers, blogs, conferences and journals are explaining why: either you disrupt or you will be disrupted. Society is at the boundary of a new era. Technology is ubiquitous and software is eating the world (Marc Andreessen). The evangelists of this era confront their audiences with the inevitable and face them with a choice: do you eat or will you be eaten? Innovation is about survival. The survival of the smartest.

EU innovation policies

It is against this background that the European Union has developed recent innovation policies. In the Lisbon-agenda the EU expressed its aspirations to become the most dynamic and competitive economy in the world. Research and innovation would lead the Union to that point.

However, even if innovation can lead to prosperity, it is still just an instrument. It has to be directed and defined by underlying values. The effectiveness of innovation is mainly depending upon its ability to solve real problems for real people. EU-strategies underlying newer innovation programmes like Horizon 2020, speak explicitly of ‘tackling societal challenges’ as one of their key objectives. Innovation needs to help people, it is an instrument to serve society.

Therefore, it’s essential to know what these challenges are and with what type of solutions society is served best. A proper analysis of the needs of society is of paramount importance to innovation strategies. Or, in the words of innovation expert Larry Keeley: ‘Innovating requires identifying the problems that matter and moving through them systematically to deliver elegant solutions.’

Need finding

But how can you do this? How can one make a thorough analysis of the needs of people when they themselves are not always aware of their needs? This is exactly why the Solidarity University has been established. In order to have effective policies for innovation and change, organisations need to have a good understanding of the people which they are serving. The Solidarity University guides civil servants, providers of health and social care, politicians, entrepreneurs and others through this process. We inspire to and assist in getting close to people and communities again and collect knowledge helping to serve them better.

Areas in which Solidarity University has applied this method are social care and welfare, housing and sustainability, environmental planning and education. In all these programmes the power of language is used to bring organisations close to people. We are doing this by a narrative approach. We collect stories from people and doing so, we gain insights in their lives and the dynamics of their communities. We gain understanding of the connectedness within the communities: what are the gaps? And where are the natural forces, which eventually can be used in service delivery? The knowledge of these stories is shared with the different stakeholders and based on that projects are initiated to improve the lives of people and communities.

de Zeeuwse Huiskamer

One of the programmes, which is running for a couple of years now, is de Zeeuwse Huiskamer (the Zeeland Living Room). In the Dutch province of Zeeland, like in many other places, organisations have been struggling with the issues of independent living. Budgets for health and welfare services have been cut and government responsibilities have been shifted from national to local level. At the same time the percentage of senior citizens is growing. In order to cope with this, elderly people need to live longer in their houses and organisations need to deliver their services in new ways. Collaboration of the different stakeholders, like homecare, city council and housing corporations is crucial to maintain viable service levels.

Some have high expectations of technology. Several experiments with this (e.g. in telecare) failed. It was hard to have a decent service level and a viable business case. From that moment a different approach was chosen in Zeeland. Need-finding was essential before designing new services. There was a growing awareness that organisations were incapable of gaining knowledge about their customers themselves. They were programmed to look to the market through the eyes of the offer that they had developed over the years. And through the eyes of a hammer, the world is full of nails.

Then de Zeeuwse Huiskamer was born. Using methods from cultural anthropology and soft systems methodology, organisations have been brought into new contact with people and communities in Zeeland. A space was created in which their stories were told and shared. Analysis of these stories helps public and private organisations to design new services or products. It helps to define new ways for joint services.

This is an ongoing process. The real work, collecting the stories of people, is an intensive and grateful task. After a couple of years, de Zeeuwse Huiskamer, has become one of the main instruments to bring the worlds of people and systems together and to explore new ways for independent living and to improve the quality of life for Zeelandic seniors.

Solidarity University

Since January 2016 the Solidarity University has been established to bring this methodology to a higher level. Besides the current projects, the Solidarity University will inspire a broader audience via conferences, (executive) training programmes and publications. Cooperation  with the University of Amsterdam and the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague brings academic quality to its activities.

At the Solidarity University, it is our ambition to contribute to a world in which innovation policies start with what they serve in the end: the people’s narratives.


This text is my contribution to the report ‘Opportunity Now’, published as a Strategical Note by the European Political Strategy Centre. Download the Full Report.