When opportunity knocks, build a door!

Our story at the JPI Urban Europe HPE, Brussels

Erna Bosschart and Arjan Biemans presented the SIAC network during a special workshop about SEiSMiC and the role of this network of innovators, at the JPI Urban Europe High Profile Event, Brussels.

What do we aim at?

(By Erna Bosschart)

You now expect us to tell you something about the project we started. How successful it is, what we aim at, what kind of obstacles we face, etc. etc. But… first I want to talk about the different and new roles we as policy-makers, citizens and scientists need to play when we want to give social innovation a real chance as the new force with which we can create a new societal balance and perspective.

With the SIAC Network we want to achieve a more inclusive society where all humans can thrive and deal with societal challenges. In order to realize this, we first need to look at the different roles we play in society and how we can alter these in order to be able to co-create as equal partners.

Citizens become producers instead of being solely consumers. Policy-makers more often than not, need to interact with citizens and scientists to alter policies and think through new policies in order to get them accepted and better equipped to face the societal changes we all notice; like the welfare state being reorganized everywhere in Europe.

First we need to acknowledge that, all of us, we are not without a specific view on how we look upon questions and the perceived solutions. Everyone of us is subject to their upbringing, their culture, their sex, their educational level etc. This colors the way we look at things. To be able to co-create with others we need to be aware of this. We all do it, we are all limited by our individual perspective.

Secondly we all have different characters. Some of us are positive upon change. Some of us find that very difficult to cope with, even when it is evident that we do need to change in order to keep our societies going.

Thirdly, there is no right and no wrong, all of this is necessary to reach the best solutions together. We are all part of the same picture. We are all inside the box. We have one planet that needs to fit us all.

So we plead for another perspective on which we start thinking about solutions. We believe they lie in co-creating. It seems that we can unite when we start by thinking about the goals that we want to achieve. We are all humans. We are someone’s daughter, someone’s son. Many of us have children, we are father, mother. We are males and females. We are all humans. We need food, water, a house.

We all know that when it comes to climate change for instance the goals lie far ahead. Considerably longer than politicians are in control. If we start a culture of co-creation and give social innovation a change/chance we are sure it will bring us a more sustainable future where all humans can thrive. So let’s connect on an intrinsic level and ask ourselves what we find really important when it comes to our common future.

  1. Innovation that brings value to everyone: about the network

(By Arjan Biemans)

Our approach towards social innovation is different. As you can see in our movie: We start with the people. We are all human. A lot of labs, hubs etc. do good work, but focus only on entrepreneurs and use methods that don’t really fit with the reality and idea of social innovation. They start with a program, focus mainly on products and are often organized through the traditional silo’s. More and more reports state this problem.

People are not organized in silo’s. Their solutions are cross sector, and have in their nature an integral approach enclosed.

We need places in society where people meet, connect, and new possibilities are created, and integral, sustainable solutions can come up. Therefore we need to share knowledge, since: knowledge = power[1]

And the beautiful thing is: knowledge is power that we can share! This will change social relations.

So, we need accelerators for social innovation[2].

And, we need a certain kind of accelerators that:

  1. build self-enabling local networks, open and empowering and
  2. thus work on a culture of social innovation heading for a shift towards Social Innovation-friendly eco-systems.

So, the labs we envision are different from existing labs. Social innovation needs different paradigms. Taking social innovation seriously, we have to acknowledge that everybody has relevant ideas and knowledge.

The approach of the Social Innovation Factory in Flanders, Belgium, fits with these ideas. We use this approach of this active accelerator as inspiration in our network. They do this very well, even using a virtual coin to facilitate the knowledge transfer and organize reciprocity in the network. And they have very good connections in the bigger network: they work inside the box. At this moment the Social Innovation Factory works on 250 initiatives.

More details you find in our leaflet.

  1. Secondly Bridging the Gap between practice, research and policy.

We combine concrete action, the creation of these accelerators, with research: in this way research is fueled with street level activities, and street level activities are directly connected with research

So the SIAC network combines the power of practitioners and blends it with the power of scientists. They are part of the network as well. During the implementation, research is already connected to the project. Learning by doing. In doing something in the real world real knowledge comes up.

In this way we ask the right questions and learn what we need to adjust in order to make change happen. That’s also why we work together with TRANSIT (a research project in 14 countries that will develop a theory of transformative social innovation). We will use the same CMS based on that of the Social Innovation Factory that is excellent for building local networks.

We not only need to bridge the gap with research:

Looking towards the world with the notion of an ecosystem in mind, makes clear acceleration of social innovation is not about the social innovation itself (a product?), but the interaction between citizens involved in social innovation and their socio-political context. Social innovation is about changing social relations, changing roles, and in the same time meeting social needs.

So this context is really important.

Very important players in this context are local government, cities and regions. They are the (democratic) structures we created as humans: a structural order, mostly organized in silo’s, that uses operational paradigms that aren’t always open to innovation.

I already stated: a framework condition for social innovation is the shift from the focus on the product ‘social innovation’ to the ecosystem and a culture of social innovation. To achieve this we need to co-create together

So, in our ecosystem of social innovation, at SIAC, we need cities as well. We work on it to bridge this gap and create a triangle between practice, research and policymakers whether they are politicians or civil servants.

  1. Thirdly: social innovation at the level of networks and institutions

The network we formed is different from most European networks in this area: It is created and formed by individuals, that initially where brought together by SEiSMiC, with their intrinsic motivation to join and to create new accelerators together. Some of them you saw in the movie. And this connection on a personal level is by purpose: real cooperation takes place when people trust each other.

We have goals that could be goals of a conglomerate of existing parties and institutions. But we are not.

So far SEiSMiC has been a good breeding ground. But what is next?

So, to resume what we brought to you:

  1. if we want social innovation to bring value to everyone, we need new types of accelerators. SIAC works on this; we form (or reform existing) accelerators.
  1. thinking in ecosystems instead of products: we connect street level (practice) to research AND policy/local authority and vice-versa: a tripartite
  1. SIAC is a network of individuals and bottom-up connection between European projects. Organized by us, two individuals, that had an idea and had the chance through SEiSMiC to find transnational partners. Could SEiSMiC be an incubator for these kind of initiatives for JPI Urban Europe?

We are convinced social innovation is possible at all these levels! When opportunity knocks, build a door!

Thank you very much: we invite you to come up with suggestions.


[1] We suggest to read the blog of Jon Huggett, (SIX), about sharing of power. He states: most of the innovation funding goes to ‘heroes’ and ‘geniuses’. We like to identify with them. To be on the stage with the innovative, creative new heroes of our society, and in this way excluding a lot of people. Blog: Funders who want radical social innovation can share power in six ways:

  • Instead of picking ideas you like, pick ideas that everyone likes
  • Instead of backing hero innovators, back “leader-rich” movements
  • Instead of trying to run collaborations, collaborate as peers
  • Instead of orchestrating harmony, welcome rage
  • Instead of investing in scaling organizations, invest to spread impact
  • Instead of encouraging erudition, use words that include and invite

[2] We suggest to read further about social innvation labs in the report ‘Lab Matters’, Kennisland, 2014