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Five ways to mainstream and grow the visibility and impact of social innovation in Europe and Beyond

“No wonder the plastic issue is being dealt with much quicker - it is so visible!" Paul Polman, CEO Unilever

If we want to have a bigger impact at scale, we need to grow the both visibility and culture of social innovation (SI). This argument has been put forward for years and is also one of the key concerns and suggestions of SIC’s recently launched #SIDeclaration.

While being active projects like SIC can act as a backbone and leader in this interest, helping develop communities, growing networks and providing entrance points to social innovation for actors and new comers in the field, but to really move forward, we need individual organisations and governments to support a culture of social innovation and to work toward increasing the visibility of these operations.

However, there are some key questions essential to move this forward and which we believe lie behind the opportunity for social innovation to be mainstreamed and become accessible in places and sectors where it is needed most. These include:

1) What are the means and types of impact we need to understand and support?

2) How do we expand our systems, networks and work beyond the innovation bubble?

3) To move beyond the fringes, we need to create and enable strong ecosystems for innovation to thrive - how can we do this collectively?


At the SIC Final Event “Beyond Imagination - a Socially Innovative Europe” a group of around 40 peers engaged in a session exploring these questions in the interest to move from vision to reality and to provide more tangible guidelines.

To start this conversation 5 social innovation experts operating within a certain ‘context’ of relevance to this topic shared insights to kick of the ideation.

  • Nora Van Der Linden, Director, Kennisland, Netherlands spoke on the role of Inclusive Policy Making

  • Gines Haro Pastor, Founder Lead, Impact Hub Malaga, Spain shared from his experiences on the power of communities

  • Jesper Christiansen, Head of Strategy and Development, States of Change, Nesta, UK provided understanding of ways we can understand and support the cultural changes needed to drive social innovation at scale

  • Hamza Zeytinoglu, Project Manager, Senior Advisor, Boğaziçi University, Turkey shared his work on mapping innovation movements in a digital space and how this can learn us on values and needs

  • Alex Mecklenburg, Digital Leaders Consultant, Doteveryone, UK spoke on storytelling and the power of narratives in driving visibility and trust.

Here are our 5 suggestions, which can help move vision to reality

“Make policy more inclusive”

“Increase the benefit of the power of communities”

“Invest in the capacity it takes to change culture in governments”

“Learn the values which makes people ‘follow’ for change”

“Become better storytellers and story enablers”


Fostering inclusive policy making - scaling and mainstreaming values and principles

How creating inclusive policy making and processes on different levels can help us achieve systemic impact.

We must challenge the existing ways in which we as societies and systems deals with the issues around us, and we must be better at applying other and more inclusive approaches.

In the Netherlands the organisation Kennisland was founded 20 years ago to research and design social progress in this interest.  

Fostering a different form of entrance points, e.g connecting around topics of issues (Urban Innovation Issues e.g.) allow for an easier path to find shared value and means of collaboration between different stakeholders. Actors are brought together not because of where they work, or what line of reference they are operating under, but based on the needs of change they are trying to meet, allowing to experience shared responsibility.

In being more inclusive and creative on how we design such collaboration between actors, we are able to engage with a more informed approach to the problems around us. Problems like isolation of elderly aged people, where change of process can help local residents and stakeholders by providing another view and understanding to the issues. Systems operators can pilot work with healthcare professionals, community leaders, teachers, school children, or other examples of professions or group of influencers and stakeholders, who might not have been thought of before.

Practice based work and social lab modes has increasingly become instruments for co-creating solutions to complex local challenges, and they are often operating through these sort of approaches. However, we cannot forget that our work has to feedback into a system. Municipalities - whether in Netherlands or somewhere else, have to keep emphasising the co-creation process and citizen engagement and to allow space to prototype and test outcome and new potential strategies.

In Seville, the peers agree that there are three key elements grounding learning and practice stories to scale the value of more inclusive policy creation:

1. A need to better understand the system we operate in

2. The power of stories

3. The working principles behind what we want


Benefitting of the power of communities - letting communities lead

People often think about technology, money, business plans, talent... when they want to solve a social problem or tackle the SDGs but... What's the role of communities for social innovation? How could we leverage communities for the success of social innovation initiatives?

“You cannot tell someone to drive a black car if they really only want to drive a red”

Community-led change work has to start with what the people want.

Impact Hub provides for a leading example of a global community of innovators and entrepreneurs, who are passionate about leveraging the power of communities for societal impact. They have succeeded in something unique and inspiring - they have managed to create a global movement of changemakers sharing a brand and a story, while at the same time distinct themselves to become locally driven and purpose led toward local needs and contexts. It has to start with the individual and local need. Impact Hub can only create the respect and legitimacy they need to do their work if they start from people’s interest. In Malaga, they have 16.000 active members, who are people sharing ideas and values.

In Seville, the peers agrees to the importance of distinguishing between creating a community vs. engaging with a community - and knowing that both can be relevant, but that the approach is different.

It can be challenging to share something with people you don’t know. Understanding the glue that joins people together is key. Helping people to find other like minded people is what can start the development of a new community.


Understand and support the cultural change needed within public institutions and organisations to drive public and social innovation at scale

The capacity of governments, institutions, businesses and NGOs to drive and sustain societal transformation is limited. How do we begin to challenge existing accountability approaches to value how innovation efforts influence organisational culture?

There is a need to build capacities in governments, NGOs and organisations to embrace cultural changes in the decision making organs (whether this is a government, politicians or other leaders (people and/or organisations)).

Building cultural capacity can be done as an inside organisational operation or by influencing form outside government). Nesta’s States of Change program seeks to do the latter, and is an inspiring example of how we intensively can put this in focus as a global practice.

In Seville, we discussed how cultural change in government starts with questions such as:

-       What is the purpose of government?

-       What does it mean to serve the public?

-       What is the relationship between the public and the systems around them?

What cultural change look like has to be a contextual questions and seeking the answers should be done within the specific context of the culture in play. States of Change has worked in e.g. Colombia, Australia and in Canada, where the free agents programme exemplifies an adapted approach to a governmental practice.

Turning engagement into strategy. This can help support and have trust and focus on a different form of practice.

Turning national development into strategy. This can help raising the bar in the ambitions we cope and prioritize within.

If we want to leverage a different more supportive culture for change. We need our strategies to allow trust and space for engaging in new ways of practice and e.g. to put focus on experimental mindset, as they have done really well in Finland.

Starting to implement (not only embrace) a mindset and a system that focuses on learning and experimentation and is culturally driven takes brave leaders. These should be celebrated and highlight to inspire like minded.

Peers in Seville agreed, that we need to make change happening from the core of our institutions and not ‘just’ advocate and create yet another innovation silo because we cannot handle the change from within existing practice.


Why influencers best serve the attention of their audiences through better understanding of their values

What are the values and needs that makes people and actors follow each other and doing so build movements for change? What can we learn from looking at processes in the digital space? How can mapping our digital footprints and engagements reveal valuable understandings that are essential if we are to mainstream social innovation?

We spend a lot of time thinking about who to follow to get the right news and examples. But do we remember to twist that question and ask, who are those following us?

Understanding the story of the followers can provide us the magnificent benefit of designing more exposure, more exchange and influence, and rarely do we tap into this opportunity. Rarely do we take the time and focus to understand their reality, who they are, where they live, what matters to them?

In Seville, Senior Researcher and Consultant Hamza Zeytinoglu led the peers into a conversation and brainstorm on how we learn about the values and needs of followers. Of the crowd, and how engaging with this can help us shape a practice which are much more likely to become mainstreamed.

Today’s digital reality has allowed us for an easily open access platform to understand where interest is captured, where we have our windows to influence, but we are not benefitting.

Attitudes tend to stay very deterministic to people’s actions. But there are news opportunities to foster relationships based on online and offline activities.

New opportunities to strengthen the trust in networks

In Seville, we agreed to the importance of values and value systems. And that values are essential if we wish to mainstream.

Operating in chaotic and uncertain situations is not to avoid, but finding out what works and sharing what works can create essential next steps in a value based approach to mainstreaming.


Moving to become story enablers to be better storytellers is a new leverage point

-       Stories are the way that humans make sense of the world

-       Of understanding patterns

-       Of making sense of things

-       The glue - as a connecting tool

Stories might be the most powerful tool of today’s time if we wish to increase visibility - also the visibility for a social agenda. But knowing how to tell stories, and knowing when to do so, where and not least how we empower those with the stories to tell them are all key challenges.

In Seville, we embarked on this challenge asking, how do we create support systems for story telling, how do we move to become story enablers.

If we are on the look for more creative problem solving, we need more creative innovation practice.

Doteveryone  works in support of this agenda, for a technology that is more fair, and a world where digital is for all. Where digital platforms can be a playground for all of us, and where we each reimagine and re-explore the power our stories hold.

What’s app and similar services has showed through a number of great examples, that stories can be empowered when the ‘tool’ to share is more in favor of the storytellers.

Today we need to think, that digital storytelling = storytelling.

Stories expert Alex Mecklenburg challenges us all by asking the innovators in Seville if we actually know what we are saying? What all those words that we are using and throwing around all of the time meaning? If we use words ‘randomly’ or less considered, how can we expect others to pick them up and feel engagement, connection and meaning with them. She is not saying that what we are saying is wrong, but that maybe, we should consider exactly the meaning of them and if what we are saying makes sense - even for the newcomers in the field?

Again, if we want to mainstream, we need to ensure that actors find themselves included in the language, that is not become exclusive in the way that it was not thought to be. People who use very difficult language, but who might do the same thing as us.

Bubbles of practice, allows to grow, ensures safety within the bubble. This can be essential at times, but also dangerous at others, if we forget to challenge the reality inside the bubble - and if we wish to expand outside the bubble, to mainstream and grow, this is place to start to look. We shouldn’t destroy, but make permeate and understand when to get out of them.

So to scale for instance, let us start by looking at the definitions of scaling? It means to climb (something) - is that what we want? And if so, how can you really scale innovation? Where do you start? Where do we climb from.

In Seville, the group of peers highlights the following questions in the interests to understand how we start to talk and share our stories and glue?

-       How can better questions be asked so that better stories emerge?

-       All kinds of strong stories already out there

-       Allow for new stories to be told

-       Attracting new people through better stories

-       Openness - curiosity and openness towards the other


What’s next

SIC will bring the learning from this session along other inputs helping to sustain and unpack the #SIDeclaration for a future more fair and inclusive social Europe.

Stay tuned and please engage with us.

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