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Support for Social Innovators in Europe

Social innovation in Europe is gaining momentum rapidly, but not without a great deal of support. From finance to infrastructure, from mentorship to networks of trust, there are many different effective ways of supporting social innovation in different countries and contexts. Over the next month, we'll be introducing you to some of the players who are supporting social innovators across Europe. To start with, we've spoken with Tommy Hutchinson, founder and Chief Executive of i-genius, and Carlos Fernandez, Managing Director of the Social Innovation Park. As an added bonus both have also kindly prepared short videos of their ‘top 5 tips for budding social entrepreneurs’. The good news for our Spanish readers is that Carlos’ video is in your native language. If you thinking about starting a business with a social impact then these videos should be your first point of call and even otherwise, the advice given can be applied to almost all fields.

We hope you enjoy the feature, and don’t forget SIE is your hub for social innovation in Europe. People are sharing the latest news, events, organisations, and ideas in the field of social innovation here. You can too! It is simple. Just register here. Interview with Tommy Hutchinson, founder and Chief Executive of i-genius, London, UK

What is i-genius?

i-genius is a world community of social entrepreneurs, we have members in over 200 countries, a network of approximately 15,000 people and quite a large social media outreach but that is always a bit more difficult to quantify. We focus on 3 main areas in our work:

  • We promote social entrepreneurship; we promote our members - we interview them, profile them, and encourage them to connect with each other. Above all, we try to encourage our members and contacts to trade with each other and we facilitate partnerships between them.
  • We have an i-genius academy, which is a business school, to provide training and tips for social entrepreneurs. At the moment this is very practice-based, but we are in the process of developing online accredited courses. We also provide training on a consultancy basis and we are probably the largest supplier of training to the British Council in this field.
  • We organise events - conferences, seminars, study tours, competitions and so on. Last year we had an Asia summit in Bangkok and 17 countries around Asia. We also had Global Healthy Workplace awards in a summit in London this year (2013 for those of you reading in the future), and at the moment we are planning to take a commission to Pakistan to explore the future opportunities there. In November (2013) we have a conference in Shanghai on scaling up in China, to roll out a series of projects. So, we do have a few things going on!

What was your inspiration for i-genius?

I worked for corporates previously and within that I worked in a wide range of arenas – ranging from being an aerospace analyst to acting as a political adviser to NatWest. I also stood for Parliament for the Labour Party back in 1997. My background is fairly corporate and a little bit political also. After my bank was taken over by RBS, I headed up an industry forum which consisted of 200 corporates dealing with Governments and around about that time (10 years ago) I felt what was really interesting to me was the development of the social economy – people creating businesses for the social and environmental good. The real inspiration for i-genius was essentially encouraging these people to connect and trade with each other and that’s the part that we’re still really working hard on.

What challenges or obstacles have you faced when setting up and running i-genius?

Many, many and they are still ongoing! The first challenge is to be really relevant to your members; you have to spend a long time properly understanding what their needs are, and those needs will evolve and we will evolve with them. That’s the first and most important thing in my opinion. Secondly, it comes down to getting the things that you want to do to support your business in the right order: this can change over time and it certainly did in my case. Every entrepreneur worries about funding and about money – that never stops. This is the most ongoing challenge; cash flow is the one thing that keeps you awake at night, with everything else you sleep soundly! Winston Churchill said “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, sweat and tears”, but actually his more relevant phrase for social entrepreneurs is that you just have to keep ‘buggering on’! I think that you can spend time following all kinds of wonderful videos and methods but nobody can teach how to keep your mind positive and focussed and just keep going. That’s something a business school can’t really give you, and it needs to be pulled from within your own character. Chill out type activities, such as meditation, and just keeping a good sense of perspective can also be very helpful in this respect.

What is the best part and the worst part of being a social entrepreneur?

The best part, at least for me, is the people I meet and trying to be relevant to them. The worst part is probably chasing money. Yet, that’s the part that you spend a lot of time on. It can also be quite exciting, especially the moments when its works: it’s fantastic. So it is probably a bit like sport – being on a mid-league side that loses as often as it wins, that’s similar to what it’s like to be an entrepreneur!

What is your vision for i-genius in the next 3 - 5 years?

We would like to be a real one-stop shop for social entrepreneurs. A place to go if you have an idea, or if you have a business and you want to develop it, we’d hope that people would at least check us out and I hope we’ll be relevant to them. So, that’s my real goal, and to do that on a global scale.

Interview with Carlos Fernandez, Managing Director, Social Innovation Park, Bilbao, Spain

What is the Social Innovation Park (SIP)?

The Social Innovation Park is a civic space and also a methodology: a means by which to promote large scale social innovation projects and a pioneering infrastructure promoted by DenokInn, the Basque Centre for Social and Corporate Innovation. From the point of view of the space, we have the Social Innovation Laboratory (G-Lab), the Social Innovation Academy and the Social Enterprise Generator. By utilising these tools, we generate opportunities for social innovation and we identify different social needs in order to find fresh solutions. As a result the Park generates new social businesses and this is incubation! Our team also fosters dialogues with these developing businesses and we try to coordinate with local companies at all times to nurture community-orientated answers.

We mainly work in the following sectors:

  1. Mobility
  2. Sustainable mobility systems
  3. Health

We generated a palliative care company, a rehab recovery company and we developed a new robotic arm to help people recover their mobility. Our team have worked with French and Spanish companies to produce gymnastics equipment for elderly people, in order to promote better health and reduce hospital visits. We have also developed a business which produces sustainable buildings, they are made with wood and sound ecological systems in place, such as water tunnels. Infact, the two newest buildings in SIP have been made using this technology.

What was your inspiration for the Social Innovation Park?

This started when we were imagining the new ‘Social Silicon Valley’ – how to generate a space where different entities such as, public bodies, people and companies could meet together allowing social innovation to thrive. The idea was to have more than just a building, we actually have a ship on the site, and we have 65,000 square metres of land. It’s a really big space in Bilbao which is also conveniently connected to the port and to the airport. Previously this space used to belong to a company that produced the substance which gives car tyres their black colouring. This was a polluting practice; now the land is used for SIP which is nice change to say the least! In our space we also have one of the new sustainable buildings, which I mentioned before, made from wood and we plan to build more. In this building we are investigating how video games and video game simulation can help social innovation, and we have been training people on how to use this new technology for social good.

What challenges or obstacles have you faced when setting up and running the Social Innovation Park?

One of the biggest challenges actually is employment, or more specifically unemployment, especially related to the youth - we are trying hard to work on this. In Spain, we have over 50% youth unemployment, as I’m sure you’ve heard, and it is truly a huge social problem. We are thinking about how to promote new companies to these young people focussing on social entrepreneurship. As a result we have generated a kind of umbrella company, to act as an intermediary for young people who are on their way to establishing a business.

What is the best part and the worst part of being a social entrepreneur?

The best part is that you feel like you are doing something good for society; something that is really deserving of your time and effort. The worst part is that people don’t understand why you are trying to solve problems using these methods and it can be very difficult to sell social innovation to more traditional politicians, the Government or companies which have a different ethos to us. And, of course investors. In Spain it is nearly impossible to sell social business to investors; this is probably the most difficult part of what we do. Unfortunately, few people are willing to put their money into social businesses’, but hopefully this will change in the future.

What is your vision for the Social Innovation Park in the next 3-5 years?

To both promote new social businesses’ in the Park and to attract more social entrepreneurs: this is a call for European or worldwide SE’s to come to the Park, the social innovation “valley” and to work to with other social innovators. Secondly, to create a ‘pool’ for social innovators – create reasons for people to invest in social business and work towards cascading the effects of it throughout society.

Bonus question: what are your favourite social incubators out there?

We’ve connected with social innovators in Berlin who are doing an amazing job, and in Trento in Italy, a group of social innovators are making an old factory into a social innovation park similar to ours which is a great idea and seems to be working well.

SIE would like to say a huge thank you to both Tommy and Carlos for sharing their expert advice with us, we are looking forward to seeing how their exciting projects develop.

A theme that seems to manifest repeatedly when speaking with social innovators who work with incubators is collaboration. Connecting people in the field who have converging interests but different experiences can enable networks to flourish allowing social innovation to provide solutions to previously unmet social needs.

We hope you have enjoyed reading our 'Support for Social Innovators' feature; there is more to come so please do keep visiting SIE.

Thank you for stopping by Social Innovation Europe!