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Meet Mirna Karzen who is mapping and supporting social innovation in the Balkans

Mirna Karzen is active in promoting social innovation, sustainable development, participatory public policymaking, public administration reform, and multi-stakeholder cooperation. She is also experienced research, lecturer and trainer. Over the past decade, she has been extensively involved in the area of EU funds/project preparation, management, education and programme planning. Within this area of work, she has also designed and implemented numerous training programmes for public bodies, the private sector and CSOs. She has successfully prepared applications for IPA CBC and other EU programmes and has acted as an evaluator for the LLP Grundtvig programme.

In 2011, Mirna co-founded a regional hybrid organization working in the area of social innovation in the Western Balkan countries, Social Innovation Lab, SIL. SIL is emerging as one of the leaders of social innovation in the region, promoting and mapping new practices and methodologies, developing a Social Innovation Balkans network and providing support for the creation of social innovation by bridging technology, science and research with private sector, local governments and NGOs.

SIE recently interviewed Mirna for our Women in Social Innovation series - a series of interviews of interesting women working on great social innovation projects across Europe

Tell us a bit about your project/organisation and what inspired you to do this work.

Social Innovation Lab (SIL) is a regional organisation working on promoting, mapping and supporting the development of social innovation in the western Balkans region. We also put extensive efforts in working on a policy level, raising awareness among decision makers about the importance of social innovation. Until 2011, when SIL was founded, I was thinking and planning to start a think tank on issues related to public administration and citizen participation for a while, as I was working for international organisations and public administration on those issues but it was just not inspirational enough – I felt that something was missing. Then while doing some research, I came across the BEPA report on Social Innovation and the Young Foundation's Open Book on Social Innovation and it was like a bulb went off – I just knew that I had found the area that was much needed in the region and also the one that brought together all of my interests and experiences as a consultant, entrepreneur, researcher, regional development specialist - I lived in the United States for many years, worked with international organisations, UNDP, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and now besides SIL, also run a consulting company working on placebranding and regional development. It was an approach that was just starting to grow in the region and which many were, (and are just beginning to) recognize as important. Then, and still now, the focus was on only  social entrepreneurship, which we see as just one segment of the total social innovation picture.

In those early years when Croatian and regional organisations were not understanding what we were talking about, it was really critical that we received great support and encouragement from many EU organisations, some of whom are now our partners in FP7 and Horizon 2020 projects, like Social Innovation Europe or, at the time, the Young Foundation. Also the Center for Social Innovation from Austria, which was great in their mentoring and support, as well as NESTA and many others. We have recognized that this movement had been growing in Europe and globally for many years and that it is time for our region to also jump into the growing network of social innovators.

Can you tell us about a defining moment where you could see the impact of your project? 

I have been teaching social innovation for the four years at the private university VERN' in Zagreb. It is a brief, introductory course on social innovation, but we also give students a task to select one social challenge, analyse it and come up with an innovative solution. Although the course is only three weeks long, for me it is always very inspiring to see students putting their energy and creativity together and developing amazing solutions. At that time, I knew that we were on the right path. I also recognized that we need to work more on developing more sustainable mechanisms for supporting social innovators through experimentations, pilot/demostration projects and their advancement. For that, we need more institutional and policy support.

What kind of organisations or people would you like to connect with that could further benefit your work?

For SIL it was an incremental process to be able to participate in the FP7 and now Horizon 2020 projects. We developed long term relationships with a number of key organisations and colleagues, now friends working in the area of social innovation. Those networks are enabling us to learn from the best but also to contribute with our perspective and more hands-on experience. We would like to expand that network globally, but also strengthen our presence and visibility in our region. As we will be working more on experimentation and start a living lab for social innovators in Croatia, we would be interested in connecting with similar organisations/living labs in Europe to learn about the methodology, practices and tools as well as mechanisms of support in creating and sustaining such a collaborative space.

Read more Women in Social Innovation interviews here.