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Systemic Social Innovation


By contrasting two animals—the cow and the squirrel—this conference aimed to highlight the difference between two survival strategies of organizations in the third sector. While ‘cows’ represented organizations which depend on regular feeding/funding by a higher power, ‘squirrels’ represented agile organizations which could adapt to different environments and financial climates.

This metaphorical comparison aimed to help civil society leaders and social entrepreneurs at the event picture important features of on-going social transformation in Europe: less leadership and help from governments and corporations, and the need for self-organisation, funding, support and development of solutions to social problems. The event promoted a rethink of strategy in the third sector with an emphasis on collaboration and innovation.

During two days the event explored how individual organisations and people have endorsed new visions, developed new strategies and tools for survival and success, and how the European Union can foster and support such pioneers through new socio-economic policies, namely regarding social entrepreneurship and social innovation.


The event was held in partnership with Euclid Network,  Social+,  KPH Projects , and Forum for Social Innovation Sweden, in Copenhagen and Malmo over two days, literally ‘bridging the gap’ between to countries.

Systemic Social Innovation Session

Joining the dots – how can social innovation change whole systems?

All over the world, there are pockets of exciting social innovations which are dramatically transforming parts of the communities or cities where they are taking place – whether that be a particular patient feedback system in a hospital, a new approach to early education in a set of schools, or a better joined up service for homeless people in a city. But how can we make these isolated interventions more than the sum of their parts?

The Social Innovation Europe session took the theme of survival strategies within a system and stepped back to gain perspective, asking: How can we transform a whole system? What is necessary for us to transform some of the highly complex systems we most depend upon – how our food, healthcare, transport and housing are provided is a growing concern for many citizens at a time of spending cuts in many countries throughout the world.

The complexity of systemic innovation makes it hard to define particular tools that can advance it. All systems are unique –a system that functions geographically, like a city,  or in a particular field, like healthcare will have very different characteristics but what are the common elements and strategies that different systems share? How can we identify them so we can create systemic innovation in our own areas?  Which parts of the system can be influenced and affected and which can? What’s the difference between scaling up and systemic change? And who should be doing it?

Specifically, we asked participants to explore how we can make systemic innovation happen. Does systemic innovation require a radical vision or incremental change? Participants were asked, which of the following are more important:

  • Inspirational leadership or bottom up community action?
  • Big investment in one thing or small amounts of funding?
  • Legislative and policy change or business as usual?

By drawing on global, national, and regional perspectives from SIX, Kennisland (NL), Mindlab (DK) and the Danish Technological Institute (DK), we began to understand some of the key strategies we need to employ in Europe if we want more innovative systems that are better able to provide society what it needs to thrive.

Key Conversations on affecting systems

Shadow projects

While projects need to be delivered to budget and on time, participants agreed that socially innovative and systemic outcomes cannot be easily achieved using practices and planning tools conceived in the current paradigm. ‘Shadow projects’ are a method/planning tool for articulating the potential systemic implications of a project which extend beyond the current paradigm—implications which could innovate the system. These ‘Shadow Projects’ are in use at Kennisland in the Netherlands, the Helsinki Design Lab in Finland, and Mindlab in Denmark.

Authority as facilitator

Jesper Christiansen of Mindlab and John Lauritzen of the Danish Technological Institute agree that it is the role of governments, at the national and local level, to act as facilitators for—not arbiter of—systemic social innovation.

Discourses of Optimization vs Renaissance

The question was raised and debated: have social innovations been more successful at a systemic level if they position themselves as a means of improving on the current system, or as a means of creating new systems?

Feedback-where is it coming from?

The importance of feedback loops and lines of communication between government departments, service providers/users, and social innovators was discussed as a crucial element for systemic innovation.

Scale vs Scope

When conceiving of the potential systemic impact of social innovations, is it more important to think about their scale, and the scale of their impact, or their scope—how many surface-issues does a systemic social innovation address, and how does the intervention benefit from synergy between solutions to these issues?

Concrete examples, methods, and tools from the session will be expanded on in the final Social Innovation Europe Report on Systemic Social Innovation.

Ultimately the session, and the event as a whole, worked to build momentum—to inspire social innovators to continue developing their work, and their strategies for engagement, in an increasingly difficult financial climate. By asking innovators to focus on systemic innovation, we created a feeling of drive towards systemic impact.

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