The Regional Social Innovation Forum took place in Belgrade on 22 April and brought together 150 delegates from Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia and the wider region. The annual forum, now in its third edition and organised by Smart Kolektiv, an NGO which helps companies to cooperate strategically with the community, and supported by USAID, aims to discuss the ways forward for social enterprise and civil society to flourish in the Western Balkans over the coming years.
The programme was packed with insightful sessions focusing on practices of social innovation at the local level, including a social innovation competition run by Serbia’s Smart Akademy. The sessions ranged from bottom-up grassroots examples of social innovation in Bulgaria (Ideas Factory), Croatia (Ethical bank & Social cooperative Humana Nova Čakovec) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (Mozaik Foundation), to how businesses and private foundations were supporting social enterprise in the Western Balkans. The forum also welcomed Haris Tahmiščić from Apiform Sit-in Beekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina, last year’s winner of the Social Innovation Competition. Euclid Network also brought a European perspective to the programme, presenting some of the outcomes from the Euclid Summit 2016 and the key future skills needed for social innovators.
The conference participants included representatives from the national government, private companies, the banking sector, foundations, social enterprises, and last but not least, civil society organisations (CSOs). With representatives from the latter turning up in considerable numbers, it is clear that social innovation is emerging mainly from the third sector in Serbia. These are mainly localised grassroots initiatives focusing on tackling social exclusion and unemployment through social welfare provision. With many of these organisations dependent on grants and scarce social investment, a new wave of local social enterprises has been emerging from within the third sector, all facing similar challenges.
The lack of diverse financial support for social enterprises leaves many of these organisations dependent on grants from foundations. The fact that there is a scarcity of funding opportunities can also be linked to the lack of a clear legal framework for social enterprises. While in some European countries, the borders between public-private-society are blurred, in Serbia there is still some reluctance from both corporate companies and public authorities to bring in social enterprises and CSOs in their supply chain or service provision model.
Besides these legal and financial challenges, it is also apparent that concepts such as ‘social innovation’ and ‘social enterprise’ are not entirely clear among policymakers and businesses. As Neven Marinovic, Director of Smart Kolektiv explained, “the term ‘social’ still has a negative connotation in this region due to legacies of the past, which means people associate it with ‘old ideas’ instead of something ‘new and exciting’.” This, coupled with a lack of an entrepreneurial culture amongst the younger generation (“over 50% of young people are unemployed; 67% of young people want to work for the state” – Neven Marinovic) makes it difficult to raise awareness and drive social innovation forward. Far from just being a question of semantics, these are challenges which are embedded in recent culture and history, and which will require a shift of perceptions over time.
Despite the challenging context, there are some encouraging initiatives taking place in supporting social innovation in Serbia. By creating a Coalition of Social Entrepreneurship Development, Smart Kolektiv are bringing together over 40 social enterprises in Serbia, focusing on the value of networking and community-building, as well as skills development.
At government level, the Social Inclusion and Poverty Reduction Unit also coordinates the implementation of a pilot project with the aim of supporting innovative approaches to increasing youth employment and employability in a socially inclusive and sustainable way. Jelena Milovanovic, Deputy Team Manager for the Youth Employment Initiative, explains that “the project aims to support innovative approaches through local partnerships of CSOs and private sector; responding to the needs and opportunities of youth at the local level, while testing innovation support models.”
A key message that came out of the forum was the need to create networks, and to collaborate across sectors and borders in order to develop an ecosystem which can foster social innovation. Passion and vision were present in abundance at this event – on this evidence there is no doubt that with time, Belgrade will become a hotbed for social innovation.
- Written by David Scurr, Euclid Network