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Gilda Farrell and transformative social innovation

SIC spoke with Gilda Farrell who, amongst many things, has been studying territorial development within the European Council. She is also the vice director of a project called LEADER and has a research centre in Lisbon which is heavily involved in local activities.


Can you tell me a bit more about what you do and what inspired you to do this work?

I have been involved in social innovation for 20 years now. I was the Head of the Social Cohesion, Research and Early Warning Division at the Council of Europe for 14 years, and before, for 5 years, the Vice-director of the technical assistance office to the EU LEADER Initiative promoting innovation in rural Europe. As a European public servant I was always engaged in providing support to innovative approaches in several fields

We started to define innovation in rural areas in the 90’s. 25 years later all the people involved in creating LEADER came to Lisbon, to work on the transformation of rural areas based on local skills and local knowledge. We will also analyse the results of our approach to innovation from the past 25 years, and align our future work with those results.

Social Innovation is trendy now, but in my work its more of a necessity to transform. I want to instill a trust in the people, and in their own abilities. The essence of social innovation is people trusting their own creativity, and capacity to be able to transform something.

Its interesting as well to build bridges between those who are involved in transformation and those who are wanting to get involved. Making these connections works really well to rebuild the trust and knowledge that we are able to live together, develop empathy for one another and be creative together.

Alongside this is my passion to build something on my own, rather than servicing the government. I want to build a space where people can be free thinking, expressive, and not worry about being politically correct.


What impact do you hope to achieve?

The impact for me is making people believe creativity is right for everyone. When you see people go from a place where they do not trust their creativity, to a place where they feel they can be truly expressive, that’s amazing. We provide the process of social innovation, creating prototypes for people to build their own creativity upon.

The impact of Social Innovation should be engaging a process where people are able to express their creativity and not to feel afraid of making mistakes. We live in a society that punishes mistakes, but I want to champion mistakes, trials, learning by doing, mistakes are part of the process of being innovative! This is the impact I want to create.

One amazing example was when we worked with a Russian artist who could transform anything with her hands. We asked her to help local women in Lisbon to get creative with the materials that surround them. They began to make these dolls, and the first time they held a doll the women began to cry, saying they would never have believed they could produce such beauty. That was a real moment for me.


How do you see the future of social innovation?

I hate mechanical perspectives, I prefer transformative social Innovation rather than social innovation as such, transformative innovation makes more sense for me. 

Social innovation by itself is a concept that was created to put responsibilities on the shoulders of people without transforming society, so for me, the future if really changing the concept, to be used as a transformative tool. Social innovation is an interesting concept if its not hindering structural issues.

For me, the future of social innovation will be to define what needs to be transformed, what for, and defining structural realities surrounding the transformation. We need to work across levels, sectors and boarders, especially considering the new political climate. We need to be completely transparent about what we are trying to achieve, then the concept will have a future.