“Design, When Everybody Designs” – Ezio Manzini in Malmö

cover ezio manziniEzio Manzini, leading thinker in design for sustainability and founder of DESIS network, was MEDEA‘s guest on 10th of September, for a talk on his book “Design, When Everybody Designs”, a synthesis of Ezio’s last 10 years of learning in the field of design. A short overview of the book would be understanding the role of the expert designer in a society where everybody designs and how they collaborate in creating social innovations.

Malmö Högskola‘s new Niagara building was filled with music, as MEDEA’s first talk this autumn started on the needle of a gramophone followed by a rather blunt introduction to everyday social innovation, illustrating the “banality of evil” in terms of the current refugee situation in Europe and social initiatives that are born from it. Such local discontinuities, as they break from the normal way of thinking, aim at solving problems, while also producing social links and overall anticipate, as a whole, to sustainable living.

One of the more interesting points of the talk, in my opinion, was the discussion around what Mr. Manzini refers to as Uberization, pointing out to one of the well known creative community initiatives that has grown into a perfectly designed but otherwise terrible monster. Nonetheless, it is important to mention that between the heroes and monsters, there is a whole spectrum of initiatives and organizations that require different levels of engagement inversely proportional to their sustainability. One cannot engage completely in creative communities’ initiatives in all aspects on ones life so in this sense it is important to have a variety of options with different levels of engagement from which people can choose, thus avoiding burn out.

Update: The full talk is available here.


Innovate conference in San Sebastian

On 18th of February, Fomento San Sebastian organized the Innovative conference on Social Innovation for cities: challenges and opportunities. Reuniting experts in social innovation from across Europe, Kursaal Congress Center was the host of an engaging 6 hour conference with two main talks followed by two round tables. Local organizations (Tabakalera, Sinnergiak and Deusto Push) shared their tables with innovators from UK, Scotland or Ireland.

innovate banner

I found myself among the participants of this impeccably organized conference, my first since my recent move to San Sebastian. After the ceremonial greeting in Basque, Spanish and English, the conference was opened by Iñigo Olaizola’s overview of social innovation in San Sebastian. What stuck out to me was the pro activity of Fomento to put to good use the existing knowledge and expertise latent in the city, recognizing its highs and lows and forming 3 strategies for San Sebastian to become a “smart city”.

Chris Durkin, expert on social innovation from the University of Northampton (and for me the co-writer of one of my recommended course literature: “Social Entrepreneurship – a Skills Approach“) was the first international guest to take the word, presenting, among others, a new concept of University with social entrepreneurship at its core with a few interesting perks to say the least. Keeping his skills oriented perspective for which he is known, Durkin stressed the need for open learning spaces where people from different domains with matching skills can connect and experiment to find local solutions for local problems.

Colin Combe was the second guest speaker at the conference, representing Glasgow Caledonian University. Everyone took their pen (or mobile) out to write down the website of the Social Innovation Network that Combe is currently putting in place. He caught my attention in particular with the mention of their first E-Journal (coming out this spring) and, nicely enough, his presentation was ended with a picture of him with Nobel peace prize winner and social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunis.

During the coffee break, I had the opportunity to change a few ideas with Iñigo Olaizola about Fomento’s view of social innovation in San Sebastian and managed to make Chris Durkin blush as I guess he probably did not meet too many Romanians studying his book. A few ideas and contacts changed later, we were all back in the conference room for the second part of the conference.

Overall, Fernando Mendez-Navia moderated two round tables with different examples of social innovation, in the field of creativity and arts, as well as from businesses or local universities. In terms of spaces for social innovation, I was glad to learn about Hirikilabs and their work so far from Josian Llorente, who I later stalked down to make sure we could share knowledge and thoughts. Impact Arts‘ representative Lynne Carr also talked about the Craft Cafe initiative where the elderly learn and practice artistic skills while Angie Smalis from Patterns Dance Collective shared an emotional event that illustrated the social importance of dance. The second round table’s discussions were dominated by questions towards Sinnergiak and their Urban Social Innovation Index presentation, engaging the public into understanding the importance of evaluation, scaling and measuring impact when discussing social innovation.

Overall, it was an engaging conference with good networking opportunities. I left Kursaal’s warmth towards San Sebastian’s too-common heavy rain, wondering about the other over 100 people that signed up and/or attended the conference, their interest in social innovation and their take-aways from the conference. I couldn’t help thinking that the real innovation force of the city was sitting on the other side of the microphones, with headphones for (English-Spanish) translation, frenetically taking notes and gathering inspiration and positive energy.

The 3 principles of Spaces for Social Innovation

In my previous post, “what are (not) Spaces for Social Innovation“, I went briefly through a few examples of self-proclaimed social innovation spaces and tried to look at how they describe themselves and what can be some constitutive elements of Spaces for Social Innovation.

As a starting point for an emerging theory on spaces for social innovation, I summarized relevant points from sociology and social innovation theory in three main principles that are applicable to all types of spaces for social innovation and can be used as a starting base for their understanding. These three principles may be obvious to many but it is important to have them written down and explained before any further deepening of the concept, as they can later on cause confusion. They do not represent an exhaustive list nor should be considered as a final version, as it represents a work in progress, on which feedback is appreciated.

  1. Spaces for social innovation are social spaces. Space, in this sense, refers to the spatial practice of its social actors, ordered through representations of space with specific spatial codes. These social spaces are thus particularly designed to enable social innovation and are given life solely through the practices of the communities that inhabit them. Following this principle, several mentions must be made such as that the term “space” does not necessarily refer to a physical space, (though there are several theories that suggest that face-to-face interaction facilitates social innovation) or that a large diversity of spaces with a given purpose can be redesigned and understood as a space for social innovation.
  2. Spaces for social innovation are innovative and social oriented. Bringing Social Innovation down to one of its basic definitions, innovative solutions that address social needs, it is important not to confuse spaces for social innovation with organizations that simply offer solutions for social needs that are not innovative in nature (completely new or an improvement of the current used methods) or with organizations that offer innovative solutions but their finality is not focused on addressing social needs. 
  3. Spaces for social innovation engage in the process of social innovation. Described by many with slight variations, the process of social innovation usually entails several stages or steps, from inception to impact: identification of new unmet social needs, development of new solutions (ideas, proposals, prototyping…), evaluation of effectiveness, sustaining and scaling up (diffusion) of effective innovations. Some spaces for social innovation only address the initial steps of the process, while others focus on scaling and diffusion.

Why am I interested in Spaces for Social Innovation

During my bachelor, I got involved in several student organizations and co-funded one myself, together with 5 other colleagues. I was fascinated by the power of youth collaboration and its outcomes. I later heard of Incubator 107, the place where “anyone can learn from anyone anything”. What a wonderful idea! And why aren’t there more?! Moving to Sweden, I soon came to realize they are indeed more. I lived for one year in Malmö, southern Sweden. I discovered there STPLN, ¨probably the coolest culture and innovation house there is¨, host to HUBn (a free work space for innovative and experimental projects), Factory  (an open do-it-yourself workshop) the Bike Kitchen and many more. But there’s also Garaget, “the extra living room” and Underverket (Swedish for “the miracle”), one of Malmö’s innovative social venue hidden underground. These are the ones I discovered and interacted with but I’m sure that there are many more, only in Malmö, Sweden. My mind filled with questions: what are they? what do they do? how do they do it? who’s allowed there? and many more.

Together with Yatin Sethi who shared my wonder towards these spaces, I started researching how they organize themselves, how  people interact there and how do the spaces strive. I learned about hubs, labs, factories, incubators and many more but I also learned they are different in different ways but they hold to some similarities that bound them together. We discussed these features and characteristics, as the lines between the spaces were thin and we wanted to address not only hub or labs but all spaces which aid social innovation. We eventually called them spaces for social innovation, with the promise that we will come back to it, ground it and describe it, from purpose to characteristics and examples, free to be used by future researchers but also by the spaces themselves, press or anyone interested in this subject. I slowly drifted aside from my promise after I graduated my masters, but I became interested in opening myself such a space: The Mingle Inn. I was trying to define my idea when I came by my previous work and realized I do not only want a general category to put it under, but I want to understand what its characteristics mean,how will they affect it,  what work they imply, what is the best combination for my purposes and so on. I learned that I am no more satisfied by saying that these are spaces for social innovation, but I also want to know all the implications behind it.

Discuss the purpose of spaces for social innovation with me

Learn about why it is important to conceptualize spaces for social innovation

Find out more about spaces for social innovation

What are (not) Spaces for Social Innovation?

What are spaces for social innovation (SSI)? What do they do? What spaces deserve to be under the SSI umbrella? This may sound as obvious questions. From the name itself, “spaces for social innovation”, it seems that these spaces define themselves through their purpose. In a previous post I discussed that “for”, refers to “intended to benefit or help something”. Spaces for social innovation are thus spaces that benefit… social innovation. Is it this clear though?

SIX defines experimental spaces for social innovation as “labs, hubs, incubators and accelerators designed to catalyze and grow social innovation”. Indeed, this informal definition, as well as others similar ones seem closely related to the argument above. I decided to look at different types of spaces that talk about social innovation in their purposes. Though some of them have a rounded up purpose that addresses clearly and exclusively social innovation processes and outcomes, other use various terms to describe their activity and their affiliation with social innovation. Do they count in the same amount? Below are some examples of different purposes from different spaces, experimental or not, physical or digital from all around the world.

  • Social Innovation Campmatches software developers and those with an understanding of a social problem to help them start and grow technology-based social ventures.
  • IkasHUB aims ” to develop personal skills and generate new ideas with value for the society”
  • 27th Region intents “to provide the other regions with the space and opportunity to design and develop innovative approaches to policy. Its goal is to foster creativity, social innovation and sustainability in public institutions, through community projects, prototyping and design thinking.”
  • The Social Innovation Factory  “will unite different players and actors in Flemish civil society to find answers to challenges like poverty, urbanization, multiculturalism, ageing populations and climate change”.
  • The LSE Innovation Co-Creation Lab  “seeks to reduce poverty and promote basic human freedoms through successful business model innovation.

My questions are:

Which are spaces for social innovation?

Which are not?

How did you decide?

hand madeMoving on, I must also consider looking at different spaces that represent social innovation initiatives or projects unlimited in time. They are usually either focused on addressing a particular social need or address only a narrow audience. An example that I am particularly fond of is the Mess Hall, an experimental cultural center, in Chicago, that hosts all kind of events and activities but is also opened to anyone who wants to contribute at creating culture. The center is community driven and no admission fee is charged for lectures, readings, workshops, and other events. Neither do they sell anything or write grants. The Hand Made book, by Tessy Britton offers several other similar examples and so do her Community Lover’s guides for those interested in these types of spaces and initiatives. Are we still looking at spaces for social innovation? And if so, where would one draw the line?


Why it is important to conceptualize Spaces for Social Innovation

I have recently written my master thesis, basing my research on “spaces for social innovation”, understood by us as physical spaces that enable and aid social innovation. We recognized the need of a clean concept with clear characteristics with which different initiatives can be compared and reviewed but I left that idea aside. Recently I was listening to Will Norman from The Young Foundation discussing the “What works” project during the introduction to Experimental Spaces for Social Innovation conference organized by Social Innovation Exchange and the ambiguity built around spaces for social innovation returned to me.

 “The fifth area was looking at this enormous growth in the number and types of, for the lack of a better word we can call them innovation labs, hubs or… but I think experimental spaces for social innovation is a nice way of thinking about these. These can range from being online and offline, they can be physical buildings, they can be networks of actors, they can be just sort of shared approaches but we really saw how there was quite a widespread growth of these and a hunger for more of them and people wanting to set up a lot of these institutions in different parts of the world.” (Will Norman, min 6.35 -7.14)

Searching for a better word

According to Social Innovation Exchange, experimental spaces for social innovation are labs, hubs, incubators and accelerators that focus on systematic experimentation: “quick development, testing and iteration, implementing and scaling of game-changing solutions to the ‘wicked problems’ facing society”. Incubators are often associated with offering the tools for the successful development of a social start-up or initiative while accelerators usually come at an earlier stage in the process. Continuing the classification, The Waterloo Institute of Social Innovation and Resilience splits labs into “change and design labs for social innovation” while also proposing an open-source design for a social innovation lab. A deeper search reveals several definitions and different classifications for these four types of experimental spaces for social innovation.

Merete Grimeland and Helen Bakos explore the difference between hubs, labs and co-working spaces, distancing themselves from the experimental perspective and approaching a more collaborative one towards spaces for social innovation. In their interview we see Peter Ramsdem from Hub London who uses the distinction between incubation (process) and incubators (place) but also uses a spectrum of support offered to explain the variety of spaces. Geoff Mulgan discusses different models of incubators with slight changes while Eli Malinsky from CSI Torronto combines different types of spaces to explain their activity.

Essentially, all these types of spaces have different models at their core based on several characteristics related to their main activity, form, funding, way of organizations and many other. Different combinations of these characteristics lead to different models associated, or not, with current used names for what, together, represent spaces for social innovation. Some organizations find themselves adopting several models while others invent their own.

Hubs, labs, and other names of describing as space for social innovation are also being used as buzzwords. Two different names can be used as synonyms, antonyms or as components of each other, weakening their original uses and encouraging ambiguity. For examples, IkasHUB describes itself as “a co-learning laboratory where to develop personal skills and generate new ideas with value for the society”. One can find co-creation labs, hub labs, lab hubs, and other types of centers, factories, gyms and other combinations of names, with new terms constantly associated with this field.

So why is it important to conceptualize the space for social innovation?

The concept “space for social innovation” can act as an umbrella for all the spaces mentioned above, as well as a generic term to refer to one or several of these spaces. But what exactly falls under the spaces for social innovation umbrella? Though it may have been loosely used in the past with similar meanings, grounding it as an important concept in this field will facilitate future research on these spaces as a whole as well as ease understanding among researchers and common users. In order for the term to be used correctly, there should be no ambiguity around it. This makes it very difficult as social innovation is defined in several different ways and the delimitation around spaces for social innovation are still not clear.

Spaces for social innovation represent a focal point for a clean and clear organization of different type of spaces, based on different criteria and characteristics. It is important to look under the buzzwords and closer at what is hidden behind words such as hubs and labs, forming a map based on ranges of characteristics. This, in turn, can help form a clear understanding of spaces for social innovation and also reveal new combinations of characteristics, missing categories or models that can hold potential.

Should all books on social innovation be open?

I have been recently reading “The open book of social innovation” by Robin Murray, Julie Caulier-Grice and Geoff Mulgan, part of their series on methods and issues in social innovation. The introduction ends on a very interesting note: “This book is a work in progress. It is very much a snapshot, designed to encourage further contributions. The methods for social innovation should be a common property, and should evolve through shared learning. Social innovations often struggle against the odds – all of our chances of success will increase if we can share our experiences and quickly reflect on what works and what doesn’t.”

This is not the only work on social innovation that adopts this mentality so characteristic to the field it contributes to, in terms of sharing their knowledge in order for others to be able to take advantage of it as soon as possible. It is, indeed, a noble act, consistent with the values associated to social innovation and its research. But what about the books that sell at around 150 eur, encouraging people in their pages to share unconditionally, to all contribute and to constantly innovate, the books that value collaboration and sharing among all and stress the importance of bottom-up initiatives, feeding dreams of contributions to the world with little finances. Are they practicing what they preach or is it just a nice, well selling discourse? The answer might not be that simple. Some authors share their chapters of the work for free, on public platforms, others will happily honor any requests for the material from aspiring researchers or social entrepreneurs.  Bottom line is that each author has different views on the importance of sharing their work with the world and how this will benefit them or not, though I personally sustain and admire authors who value and appreciate sharing, openness and accept the contribution of their readers to the work. Social innovation does not address rich people, at least not at the bottom. These people aren’t any less important, but the contrary – it is from the simple contributor that social innovation  will flourish in theory and in practice.  My question to you is Do you consider that authors in the field of social innovation have a moral responsibility of making their work accessible to everyone? Should all books on social innovation be open?