How to create a socially innovative network?

A lot of  networks consist of big players, research institutions, steered by budgets, programs and the big players. How can a group of committed citizens form a network and work together on their ambitions in this field and co create together with the institutions instead of being driven by the institutions? What is a good starting point for a network like this? What is needed to make it work? What can you do yourself, as a broker? A number of lessons from our Berlin meeting, the SIAC-network and our presentation in Baia Mare.

Ou starting point: a group of individuals with intrinsic motivation and a shared purpose

Fourteen SEiSMiC partners from five countries convened in Berlin June 27-28 for kick-off discussions about this newly-minted initiative, Social Innovation Acceleration in Cities (SIAC). A gathering of individuals that became a team.

Our societies are highly structured, to reach our goals. To reach these goals we use external ‘motivators’. To keep things going we are being paid, we monitor programs, create organizations and institutions. And the rationale behind it is not always clear. We still think external motivators work the best in every situation. Although research already pointed in a different direction: the higher the financial reward people receive for their work, the worse the performance will turn out. Maybe you already heard Dan Pink about this. RSA made a beautiful animation with his talk.

What really drives us according to Pink:

– Autonomy/self direction (as opposed to management) leads to engagement.

– Mastery: becoming better at something, because it is fun.

– Purpose: your contribution to society: making a contribution.

Intrinsic motivation

One of the main mechanisms behind social innovation is not money but the intrinsic motivation of people to act. Social innovation wouldn’t exist without intrinsic motivation. So, that was our starting point in Berlin: to show our humanity instead of acting from our position or role.

Openness: Innovation and new relationships bring insecurity

Secondly, innovation is not bound to existing structures. Social Innovation will lead to new relationships[1]. We created a group process separated from existing structures, organizations and positions. Deliberately.

We approach Social Innovation in a different way. More and more reports state the problem of the focus on the ‘product’ social innovation (and copying of solutions), scaling, challenges etc. Based on operational paradigms from the context, the existing world where social innovation takes place. There we create things from the perspective of our roles, according existing ideas how to organize, and according to existing power lines.

We brought together a group of individuals. Talking from this starting point brings insecurity, especially for those used to their position. But we need this openness to prevent ourselves of creating a new institution again.


– there is no pre-defined structure or outcome;

– YOU (participant) are “part of the picture”: don’t point at others or wait till others solve something for you;

– give space to creativity AND insecurity. So make space for people to speak up, be honest and clear.

Responsiveness: creating a creative GROUP

There is another reason to connect on the intrinsic and personal level: Deep levels of collaboration arise when people know, like and trust one another. This does not mean that such teams are without conflicts, but their ability to recover from such things is what matters. Great collaborators know the difference between conflict over ideas and conflict between personalities and act accordingly to separate the two. Great collaborators argue about ideas in order to improve them, but they never make the mistake of letting arguments about ideas cross over to the people behind those ideas. The essential idea behind this is what business thinkers such as Peter Senge call “creative tension”. This tension causes better ideas if the collaborators have mutual respect for one another and therefore a willingness to hear ideas that are dissonant to their own.

So, regarding the group process there are a number of principles we have to embed in the process:

– no one has monopoly on the truth;

– think and act over your own domain borders. So, invite people that want and are able to see the bigger picture;

– work on a shared vision and purpose;

– challenge the truth: ‘design difference in’;

– be honest and clear: invite participants to share all that comes up;

– recognize that what makes you uncomfortable…

– everyone is ‘part of the whole’: put yourself IN the picture, not outside: acknowledge that you yourself might sometimes be the obstacle…

– recognize the power of power;

– recognize what makes you uncomfortable, enjoy the unknown;

– be aware that the process takes time;

– open space attitude: be flexible, stay open.

Not only formulate principles, but start a process: Alternating between the individual and the group perspective.

So, how to deal with al of this? It seems a whole lot, and with everything said, you might get the feeling nothing might come out of it… Maybe you agree on all the principles, but don’t see the practical relevance.

To get out of this area of doubts and ‘if’s’, first a clear (working) question needs to be formulated: what are we working on? And, is this the real question?

On the level of the question (or project) there are four area’s to take into account:

– means;

– objectives;

– vision, values;

– observations, facts.

In Berlin we worked with the last three. We looked at vision, purpose, etc. and created an intrinsic motivated network. Jurgen van der Heijden introduced a tool for action.

Our next step is to focus on the means: the approach, creating accelerators, partners and funds.

ME and US

Since we believe that at every level and for every step taken, the individual, intrinsic level is relevant, it is needed to create a process that gives space to this: There is constant interaction and movement necessary from the perspective of the individual participant (the ‘I’) and the group (the ‘WE’). This is called a dialogue. This is what we created space for during the days, we switches several times the perspectives:

I: my involvement, my autonomy, ownership

WE: to be connected. Every problem is contextual. It is important to know all involved interests AND to give priority to the common interest. We have to feed this conversation continuously: it takes time. Especially since we work together WITH institutions in a field of existing interests.

For the future we need to feed the dialogue, constantly at three levels:

– social innovation itself. Read more here.

– the network/project (within your local network, AND in Europe, within SIAC);

– and the bigger context: institutions, programs, etc. We will feed this discussion within JPI Urban Europe, Cities and research institutions! We are all on the picture!

[1] Social innovation is a very broad concept. Social innovation is commonly defined as new ideas and solutions (products, services and models) that simultaneously meet social needs and create new social relationships or collaborations (Grisolia and Ferragina, 2015).

These innovations are considered both good for society and capable of enacting greater societal involvement. (Murray, Caulier-Griece and Mulgan, 2010, p. 3). social innovation enhances society’s capacity to act and is characterized by the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy seems increasingly unable to tackle, the empowerment of groups and individuals and the willingness to change social relations. 


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