This Blog was published on the website of SIEurope. SIEurope organized this summer a conference about the buzzword ‘ecosystems’ for Social Innovation:

Exploring Ecosystems for Social Innovation: Bridging the Gap to the Future!

What I think the participants of SIE Berlin had in common was the growing understanding that social innovation is something really difficult to push forward, although we are all eagerly looking forward to systemic change. That is where the buzzword ‘ecosystem’ came in. But didn’t we make it more complicated for ourselves to not only discuss a broad concept like social innovation, but something abstract as “ecosystem” as well? That was my big fear in traveling to Berlin for a meeting with 70 dedicated people from all over the world.

Ecosystem and operational paradigms

I was already prepared for this discussion since we explored the subject within SEISMIC and talked about Social Innovation Friendly Ecosystems, since the ecosystem we live in isn’t always friendly towards social innovation. Why is that? Kelsey Spitz stated the first day in Berlin that ecosystems for social innovation challenge the operational paradigms we know so far. How we tend to organize things in society, especially within organizations, tends to reduce openness. The tendency is often to create and decide something for somebody else and to select the best solutions from known options. We are looking for innovativeness and the ability to connect to people – something one expects from ecosystems.

But what does ecosystem actually mean? I found this definition of ecosystem: a system, or a group of interconnected elements, formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their environment. It is about organisms in nature, interconnected and interacting with their environment.

Is creating an ecosystem for social innovation about creating space for social innovation in its environment? Can we see social innovation as a phenomenon in itself? Is it a “product” that we can produce? Do we want (a certain kind of) social innovation or are we talking about people wanting to realize social innovation, to co-create in interaction with their environment?

A shift in mentality

It was in one of the subgroups that Sam Hopley explained to us how they created an organization that has this responsiveness towards people instead of operating in terms of products. They applied a number of rules or maybe better, principles. E.g. every employee should work in frontline as well for a number of hours per week, even if your position is in another area like accounting. In this way operational paradigms aren’t the most dominant factors in the system. Essentially, he was talking about a small ecosystem with the mentality that focuses on the process, not the products.

One of the conclusions in our sub group was that an ecosystem might be a set of rules or principles. And you can decide to apply this in your own context. But what are these principles?

The tendency is to organize labs and networks for social innovation by applying existing operational paradigms on social innovation (challenges, scaling, etc.), instead of creating a new mentality. One new element could be: “Scale the process instead of the innovation”, as shared by Aine McGlynn.

So we were not talking about what an ecosystem should consist of, but rather, that you can decide to make an ecosystem of your organization, your neighborhood or your city. We are only at the starting point to converge towards shared insights and principles.

A place to work further on these principles is SIAC, Social Innovation Acceleration in Cities, a network focused on creating new kinds of social innovation accelerators based on these principles. You are invited to join!

Bridging the gap

Looking back on the two days of presentations and lively discussions with the participants, my conclusion is: an ecosystem for social innovation is possible everywhere; it is a mindset.

I was very happy with the statement of Fabian Suwanprateep, when we were talking about the role of foundations in the ecosystem. He said: “Focus on building partnerships in social innovation instead of investment opportunities.” Within SIAC, we state it like this: instead of developing solutions in terms of new smart products, we argue that social innovation labs should focus on redesigning the way we are organize institutional processes. We should activate and organize in new ways within the existing capacity of local communities. That sounds complicated, but to keep it simple, I suggest we (as a group) focus on the principles.

And, since it is a mindset, you don’t have to wait to reinvent our society: ecosystems for social innovation can exist everywhere, as concluded in Berlin, on every scale. You are invited to bridge the gap together!

By Arjan Biemans

Find more about SIE Berlin here.