We present below the summaries of three case studies from the SILEA research project on social innovation in LEADER areas (2014-2020) in Austria.
The first and second case studies are similar concerning the thematic field – local coordination of informal voluntary work – but different in their outcomes. Both have delivered successful and illustrative examples of social innovation in rural areas, but the inter-communal approach in Vorarlberg suffered from an unexpected hiatus at the transition point between local experimentation and regional mainstreaming. In contrast, the approach in Tyrol followed a smooth path towards institutionalization in the form of a service point of the urban center of the rural district.
The third case study tells a story about a new, radically practical and integrative concept of job orientation for school kids in an area whose mainly small- to medium-structured craft businesses suffer from a pressing shortage of skilled labor and apprentices. The approach builds on the dual vocational training system in which after the eight years of basic education the students, alternatively to continuing secondary education, may choose to learn a craft they are interested in, during a three year training cycle, while they are employed by a local enterprise. This is also a story in which the LAG is not just supporting innovative project promoters; indeed it has adopted the role of a social innovation promoter on its own with considerable success but also some, though not insurmountable, problems concerning the mainstreaming of the innovative approach.
Enjoy reading and search for lessons to be learnt.
1. Local coordination of voluntary work in Bregenzerwald and Leiblachtal. A social innovation supported by the Local Action Group Regio-V.
Civic engagement and the willingness of people to support weaker community members are strengthening social respectively societal resilience. It can be evidenced in the amount of voluntary work which can be mobilized. However, demographic change, new migration and commuting patterns, indeed new patterns of life, are challenging the traditional ways in which voluntary work used to manifest itself in rural communities, mainly provided through well-established community groups and formal associations. Nowadays it becomes increasingly difficult for these associations to ensure local citizen’s on-going commitment and to find people willing to take over management functions. At the same time the readiness of citizens to contribute with voluntary work does not really decrease. Their commitment just becomes less foreseeable and more spontaneous, in response to emerging needs and according to their individual availability. Now there is the question how to mobilise and to harness this potential outside the traditional and more formalised structures of voluntary work. One solution could be to find trustworthy people who support and coordinate voluntary work at the micro-level which means to manage the interface between demand for and supply of voluntary work in most flexible ways, thereby assuring that people who are in need of support can reconnect to the society and do not drop out from the social and economic life.
In a pilot project called ‚ Commitment‘ (2009-11) run by the LAG Regio-V together with a regional NGO specialised in social care (Lebenshilfe Vorarlberg) it could be shown that part-time employed intermediaries called ‘local coordinators for voluntary work’ were actually able to mobilize a lot more individual citizens for voluntary work than the existing associations were able to.
Bolstered by the positive experiences the LAG reflected how municipalities could be drawn into the game because they would certainly benefit from voluntary work coordination which mostly happens at the fringes of their statutory responsibilities. For example, if refugees are hosted in the community, the municipality has, together with other specialized institutions, to accomplish duties to ensure housing, caring, organizing language lessons and integrating them into community life. However municipalities are often not well prepared for this in the first place.
Therefore the LAG conceptualised a second round of the pilot project under the name „Being Committed“ in the next LEADER period with a runtime of 3,5 years, from Oct. 2015 to April 2019. The project was expected to produce benefits for a) the people supported by voluntary work (people with physical or mental handicaps, children, elderly people, asylum seekers…), b) the employed voluntary work coordinator who grows with the task and acquires new social competencies, and c) the relevant institutions (school, social care organisation, municipality…).
The LAG selected and employed five agents and placed them in five micro-regions Leiblachtal and Bregenzerwald, altogether covering 18 rural municipalities. They hold monthly gatherings to exchange their experiences, learn from each other and manage common initiatives. Strategic questions are discussed in bi-annual meetings of a steering committee in which regional stakeholders participate. For some time, the project also provided a social counselor whom the coordinators could call for individual coaching sessions.
Image from the ‘Café Meeting Point’ in Hittisau, Bregenzerwald in the State of Vorarlberg (AT) which provides a meeting space for local and immigrant women. One of the micro-projects mediated by the coordination agents and based on voluntary work.
The project was funded from LEADER (EAFRD) with 60 %, from the ‘Office for Future Affairs‘ of the State Government of Vorarlberg with 20% and with 20 % from the 18 municipalities concerned. It turned out to be very successful. It triggered more than 100 small initiatives in which 850 people got mobilised for 26.800 hours of voluntary work providing support for 6.150 beneficiaries. New synergies between public institutions, non-profit organisations and citizens have been created. The agents are not only locally present and accessible on demand, but they also set new accents in the gaps left by relevant organisations, municipalities and civic associations.
All actors involved are convinced that the chosen approach of inter-municipal and cross-sectoral voluntary coordination led to an increase in social competencies and quality employment, thereby strengthening the resilience of local communities. The project became a showcase for the LAG Regio-V.
Based on the success story the LAG, together with other interested stakeholders, negotiated a mainstreaming solution according to which the State of Vorarlberg and the interested municipalities would share the permanent costs for inter-municipal and cross-sectoral voluntary work coordination agents, with the LAG as the employer (to balance out municipal self-interests) and in a supervising role enabling collective learning and further development of the concept. The talks almost came to a conclusive end, until, to the utter surprise of the people involved, the social department of the State government signaled that it would not be able to create a budget line for this kind of intervention, which in turn led to the withdrawal of the municipalities. As the LAG is not designed to perpetuate innovative actions, the approach came to a regrettable halt – for the time being.
For further information contact:
Peter Steurer (LAG manager)
2. ‘TOGETHER in Imst’. A social innovation of the Local Action Group Imst
In the year 2013, the State Government of Tyrol launched an initiative in favor of voluntary work coordination called ‘TOGETHER in …’ which was taken up by seven pilot municipalities in rural areas. For two consecutive years, the State department for social affairs co-funded local voluntary work coordinators employed by the municipalities. This urban center-oriented approach marks the main difference to the above mentioned project which bet on an inter-communal approach stretching over several small rural communities.
After the State-funded two-years pilot period, most municipalities stopped the project, but Imst wanted to carry it on because of the positive outcomes. As the approach happened to get integrated into the Local Development Strategy 2014-2020 of the LAG ‘Regional Management in the District of Imst’ under the name ‘TOGETHER in Imst’ as a strategic priority, it could be taken up by the LAG and extended with 70% of its cost covered from LEADER (EAFRD).
The project supports the citizens living in Imst − but also including more or less informally the surrounding rural areas − to self-organise in order to meet their own needs or to become active contributors for strengthening the common well-being. It provides an enabling framework to foster social cohesion between generations, cultural groups, families and sectoral interests through the mobilization of voluntary work. All people involved benefit from the emerging network and from the expertise brought by through the project management and other cooperation partners. Thus the project „TOGETHER in Imst“ evolved into a platform and networking hub for existing assocations, public institutions and individual citizens who are interested in providing or benefitting from civic engagement. Each new micro-project contributes to the further growth of the network and strengthens the sense of social responsibility and respectful ways to deal with each other.
After five years the approach morphed into an intermediary service point hosted by the City of Imst and is still managed by one of the two coordinators who started the project.
Third agers on a bicycle tour, one of the micro-projects mediated by the municipal voluntary work coordination agent and based on voluntary engagement.
For further information contact:
TOGETHER in Imst (a project supported by the LAG Regionalmanagement Bezirk Imst)
3. Apprentice Worlds. A social innovation promoted by the Local Action Group ‘Zeitkultur Oststeirisches Kernland’[i] (Styria/Steiermark, Austria).
The LAG ‘Zeitkultur Oststeirisches Kernland’ operates in a small-structured, economically lagging rural area with attractive landscapes, villages and towns, with a well-founded tradition in a broad range of crafts, from construction to creative and culinary businesses. The social innovation we speak about here emerges from a string of projects titled ‘Creative Apprentice Worlds‘ which the LAG has carried out since 2012, with a perspective until 2021. Back then, after a series of stakeholder consultations and the insight that there is no innovative actor in sight who could take front rank, the LAG decided to initiate and implement these projects on its own account. The main mission of ‚Apprentice Worlds‘ is to contribute to solving the – according to the Regional Chamber of Commerce – most pressing problem of Styrian businesses, the shortage of apprentices and skilled labor in all Styrian regions and economic sectors.
‘Apprentice Worlds’ are based on the concept of so-called ‚work boxes‘ originating in a collaborative initiative called ‚Werkraum Vorarlberg‘ (which can be roughly translated into ‘Factory Space Vorarlberg’[ii]) dating back to the turn of the century. With the help from a ‘Werkraum’ architect the LAG Zeitkultur Oststeirisches Kernland revised the original, more illustrative concept of work boxes and developed them further into interactive and mobile ones. These novel ‚work boxes‘ were developed under assiduous – not always easily manageable – participation of local entrepreneurs, vocational trainers and students/apprentices. A work box, basically a wooden cubicle, contains modular elements which, once unpacked and unfurled, do not only illustrate the main features of a particular craft (from hairdresser to carpenter, from cook to pastry baker, even crafts falsely stigmatised as forlorn such as book printers); they also serve as workbenches on which workpieces can be crafted. To date, 25 work boxes have been designed and built which are utilised during practical job orientation events in secondary and primary schools around the whole State of Styria (Steiermark). Pupils and students working on the workbenches are supported by entrepreneurs from the respective surrounding areas. They do this on a voluntary basis. Their benefit is the enhanced probability that one or the other student would not only sign up to a week of vocational practice in their own shop but maybe one day would sign in as an apprentice after having finished elementary education.
The workboxes are transportable which means that they are shipped for free to the schools which host the job orientation event, mostly one full day in their sport halls. Starting in 2014, the work box ‚road shows‘ have already reached more than 100 schools and included more than 6.000 students and pupils in Styria, not to speak of the host of local entrepreneurs who got involved during these exciting events which rather resemble a big party than an ordinary day in school.
East Styrian Apprentice Worlds: a social innovation in job orientation, at the interface between education and employment.
The Apprentice Worlds have raised considerable interest outside the LAG area and also outside the State of Steiermark. As mentioned, the social innovation stretches over more than ten single projects which were artfully engineered by the LAG manager and the respective project managers. Two projects were carried out in the framework of transnational cooperation; one having been funded from Interreg/ERDF together with Hungary and another one from the LEADER transnational cooperation sub-measure. Besides partners from other Austrian States, stakeholders at least from Luxemburg, Germany and South Tyrol have already asked for methodological transfer.
Triggered by the arrival of many refugees via the Balkan route in the year 2015, the innovative job orientation concept got combined with integration measures under the heading ‚Future-oriented Apprentice Worlds’. The main beneficiaries were supposed to be juvenile asylum seekers. The Austrian government found this approach commendable and even awarded it an innovation prize. After the 2017 elections the new right-wing government banned asylum seekers from taking apprentice jobs and the concomitant vocational training as long as their asylum status was not confirmed – which meant an indefinite, mostly very long time of idleness and uncertainty for young people who eagerly wanted to learn and integrate themselves into the society[iii]. This was the death knell for this approach, but the LAG managed to redraft the operational plan in favor of unemployed youth particularly difficult to place, in collaboration with a highly profiled non-profit organisation working in that domain in East Styria.
The weak point of the social innovation ‘Apprentice Worlds’ may lie in the mainstreaming transition. Although the approach has been praised by all relevant stakeholders (Chamber of Commerce, many entrepreneurs and the State government), and although the resonance and demand from schools keeps being unabated, it seems to be difficult to insert it into the regular structures of job orientation in the space between the Chamber of Commerce, the vocational training schools and the labor market services. One thing is clear as things are today: in comparison to the tentative beginnings, the LAG has acquired unchallenged reputation as a local actor in social innovation.
For further information contact:
Wolfgang Berger and Erika Reisenegger
[i] ‘Zeitkultur’ can be translated with ‘Culture of time’; it kind of refers to the notion of a ‘slow region’. ‘Oststeirisches Kernland’ on the one hand refers to the geographic location (‘the core of East Styria’), on the other hand it resonates an implicit allegation to the lead product of the area: pumpkin seed oil (‘Kernöl’).
[ii] Vorarlberg is the Westernmost Austrian State. The seed project has been initiated during LEADER II by the LAG ‘Natur und Leben Bregenzerwald’ (which later merged into the Regio-V).
[iii] After the dissolution of this government in 2019, the ban got partly revoked by the Austrian Parliament, but most candidates have either moved to one of the big cities or to an unknown place, or have been deported in consequence of a negative notification concerning their request for asylum.