Tag Archives: European Social Innovation Prize

I (still) stand for radicals

Diogo Vasconcelos R.I.P.A year ago, people I know well and I have great respect of asked me to stand as a judge in something called the European Social Innovation Competition. It is a European Commission initiative; an attempt to honor the memory of the late Diogo Vasconcelos, a dedicated champion of social innovation in Eurospace. I accepted, and learned much in the process. I am honored to announce I was asked to serve as a judge for the second edition, and again I accepted.

My take on this has not changed since last year. I choose to interpret my role as that of a supporter of radical, out-of-the-box-thinking ideas; and, even more so, of unexpected executors of those ideas. A social innovator does not need to fit into the Silicon Valley young genius “gonna change the world” stereotype. Whoever you are, wherever you are (non-EU citizens are also eligible in some cases), you will have my support as long as you have a great idea and are committed to carrying it to the end. I might be unable to wrap my head around your idea – and I certainly might be unable to convince the other ten judges to see it my way – but I promise I will not balk, no matter how disruptive and scary your project is.

You stand to win some money (three projects will be awarded with € 20K each); some mentoring; some recognition. Bring it on, my fellow Europeans: let’s rock the world with our vision and execution. I’ve got your back. Deadline December 11th.

Update: the documentation on the #LOTE3 session on How to win the European Social Innovation Competition is online.

Is the impact of social innovations measurable?


Last week I was in London for the first jury meeting of the European Social Innovation Competition. We were guests of NESTA; its CEO Geoff Mulgan presided over it. Geoff is, in my humble opinion, one of the most interesting policy makers in Europe: even if we don’t always agree, when he speaks I pay attention. On this occasion, I was stricken by his insistence on the importance on measuring the impact of social innovation initiatives. Rigour and quantitative measurement, he finds, are essential to get rid of the hype and the faking that have deposited on the concept of social innovation over the last few years (his defining phrase: social innovation is “a bulls#!t attractor”).

I agree on the rigour part. On quantitative measurement I have doubts. Social innovators – the real-deal, disruptive ones – want deep change in society, so it does not make sense to assess what they do in terms of the very society they are trying to change, Take, for example, Bitcoin (Wikipedia) – an electronic for of cash designed so as to work in purely peer-to-peer fashion, with no central entity that can manipulate its value. It uses unbreakable cryptography to prevent people from spending their Bitcoins more than once, and it allows (unbreakably) anonymous transactions. I know personally people that advocate for it passionately: they are idealistic, generous folks, moved by the idea that bank-created “fiat money” is inherently flawed. There is only a small problem: unbreakable crypto and anonymous transactions are likely to lead to 100% safe fiscal evasion. Its detractors claim that Bitcoin has the potential to strike at the very heart of states, destroying their ability of imposing taxes. When you run this argument to Bitcoin supporters, many shrug it off: states, they say, are only good insofar as they solve problems for people. If their existence becomes a roadblock to problem solving, well – it might be time to look for something that works better.

Let me attempt to reformulate that. It’s not that these people are diehard revolutionaries. It is that, for the innovator, the status quo has zero value, less than zero in some cases. He or she assesses the impact of what s/he is trying to do in terms of the world that will contain the innovation at hand. Professional evaluators, working for government or private foundations, run their own assessment in terms of the world we have now, and ask the proposed innovation to improve it without changing it too much (they themselves are ruling class in the existing world, and it makes sense for them to treasure it). They are like Henry Ford’s clients that, in his own words, “would have asked for faster horses” because, simply, they could not possibly see clearly the car civilization without giving up important parts of their identity. Or like the Archbishop of Mainz, Gutenberg’s ultimate sponsor (through the “angel investor” Johann Fust), that supported the development of the printing press in the hope of producing an impact (cheap, fast indulgence certificates and bibles) that ended up, ex post, being insignificant; whereas its true impact (democratization of reading and writing, diffusion of heterodox religious material and ultimate victory for Luther’s reformation) would have made him recoil in horror. We consider the printing press a great step forward in the history of humanity, but this is because we are the children of the civilization that the printing press has spawned. We won that particular battle, so we get to write its history – if only because the losers have gone extinct.

Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. Much of social innovation is out to redesign welfare. Welfare is a very important part of European identity: free and compulsory education, health care, provisions for the socially excluded. This stuff is, therefore, politically explosive. Try telling an Italian or a Swede “hey, looks like mass university is not working. Let’s scrap it and replace it with a system of Massive Open Online Courses”: what you’ll get, more often than not, is not a serene discussion, but an entrenched defense of the values allegedly underpinning the existing system (like “open and fair access to education for all”). Good luck arguing that the system is not particularly good at realizing those values, and that it makes sense to explore alternative routes: you are likely to be treated with suspicion and irritation (“There must be something fishy. Just in case, hands off our mass university”). So, the evaluator of social innovation projects finds herself in an uncomfortable position: if a project is low impact, there is no point in supporting it. But if it is high impact, supporting it could be very dangerous for the society in which the evaluation happens.

How to solve the dilemma? A technical solution could be to separate completely the function of promoting social innovation from that of evaluating it. In this scenario, you’d get a small scene of government agencies and private foundations tasked with maximizing the creative potential of social innovation, with a “take no prisoners” attitude and a complete disregard for existing societal equilibria; and a watchdog filtering out projects that threaten to be too costly in terms of foregone stability. But such a system is likely to be politically untenable – and then forecasting disruptive effects is at a minimum very hard, and could well be impossible even in theory because of positive feedback dynamics. While we wait for a better idea, I am afraid we will have to live with policies for social innovation that promote vanilla ideas and cater to the usual suspects, who stand guard to the existing order.

Good news: three social innovations from Edgeryders

Photo: silent fabrik @flickr.com

I learned much at Living On The Edge 2 – and I am not alone: the conference got lots of love from all kinds of direction. The Edgeryders community has developed an ease of collaboration, and a method for it, that make it not only inspiring, but highly productive as well. As too seldom in the past, I find in Edgeryders extreme variety (we come from over 20 countries and from all walks of life) combined with a common language that makes interaction as effortless as it gets. For example, as soon as a conversation between more than four people takes off, someone opens a PiratePad, shares the link on Twitter, and people start collaborately taking notes without anyone even needing to agree to. In such an environment, it is not only easier to come up with fresh ideas; getting down to feasibility and moving towards execution is easier too.

Among the many good things that happened at #LOTE2 is that three ideas proposed by members of the community have been developed into the shape of projects, and were subsequently entered into the European Social Innovation Prize. I am especially happy with this, because I am one of its judges and it is in our best interest to get many high-quality entries. The projects are:

  • The Social Capital for Social Ventures (SC4SV), led by Nadia El-Imam and Vinay Gupta. The idea is to mobilize non-monetary inputs towards social business creation: “By putting time and specialized skills (like language or design skills) at the disposal of new small enterprises, we take what we have (skills, time and talent) and use it to fill in the gaps left by what we don’t have: access to investments of financial capital. This is self-help into employment for a largely unfunded generation.”
  • The Edgeryders Knowledge Integration Program (EKIP), led by James Wallbank. The idea is to teach each other to develop locally sustainable businesses: “Participating EKIP initiatives [in the UK, Germany, Poland and Italy] have developed grassroots responses to local economic and social challenges, and are building sustainable business models based on their particular insights. Common factors include a strong engagement with information communication technologies, facilitation of peer-learning and co-working methodologies, flexibility to specific local conditions, and structural independence from large scale institutions.”
  • The unMonastery, led by Ben Vickers. The idea is to redeploy monastic life as a template for collaboration and innovation: “We’re working together to develop a new kind of social space that combines the best of hackspaces with a living environment, the primary function aims to actively serve the buildings local community.”

I am very proud of this last gift from the Edgeryders project. And I am even prouder that all this innovative impetus comes from an initiative by a public international institution – the Council of Europe – that, with courage and coherence, stood for its role in facilitating and empowering its citizens, including the most radical ones, the most difficult to fit in the traditional European representation ritual. Let’s hope for more of this in 2013.