Denmark’s take on citizen participation in the public sector (seminar with Christian Bason)

A few days ago I got the honor of being invited to attend a seminar in Bilbao with none otheChristian Basonr than Christian Bason. I was particularly thrilled to meet Christian as his book on co-creating for a better society  is one of the few that attempts to name characteristics of different types of spaces for social innovation and offers quite a long list of different names under which people gather to solve society’s problems through innovative solutions. Christian is also the director of MindLab in Denmark,  a classic example of the spaces for social innovation I am currently interested in, a golden oldie.

Different government officials, researchers and practitioners from the field of social innovation in public services were gathered under the same roof by Mr. Gorka Espiau for two hours under the title “Nuevas formas de participación ciudadana en el sector público. El caso de Dinamarca” or its English equivalent “Redesigning public services : cases, methods, challenges”.

Even though we didn’t gather there so much to look at Mindlab itself but at their work, a few things about the space stuck out. My favorite insight was on the neutral nature of this space, being owned and thus accountable to not one but three different institutions, yet disregarding hierarchy, including everyone and taking all types of knowledge into consideration. Christian presented three stories about the projects they have been working on, from simplifying bureaucracy for small businesses to digital mentoring program for unemployed and revolutionizing the whole education system with a government initiated bottom-up approach. Indeed, it was as interesting as it sounds though these cases are easily accessible on MindLab’s webpage. Some interesting learnings from Christian’s presentation were that it’s difficult to keep true to the space’s mission in terms of really creating long-lasting change, that projects should always be opened to continuous learning and adjustment and my favorite: the point of co-creation is to look around and see who else is doing what you plan to do and think of how we can work together, instead of working on the same idea separately. The latter is actually the reason I am so avid to create this common knowledge base about which are the different types of space for social innovation and what are their components that actually work when it comes to aiding social innovation. Proving that the Basque Country is making its own progresses in terms of citizen-driven social innovation in the public sector, ProsumerLab from San Sebastian presented a case study on the issues citizens face when applying for subsidies for their first child, also offering a list of solutions to be implemented arisen from interactions and conversations and most importantly active listening and empathy. Amaia’s presentation ended with the lessons they learned while working on this initiative such as the importance of front line public servants.

Christian ended the seminar by bringing to our attention the need to find the best way engage with leaders who are prepared to make the most of the approaches and tools we are prepared to offer them, ultimately leaving the audience chewing on larger issues such as if these social innovations are only treating symptoms or superficial challenges in the society or are they aimed towards  something bigger and if so, what is the kind of change we are really striving for and what is the true value that our projects bring? Walking back to the Bilbao’s bus station on the warmest weather I have yet to see, these questions were still lingering in my mind.


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?


Are spaces for social innovation a type of innovation spaces?

It is a common belief that spaces for social innovation are simply a sub-category of spaces for innovation. Spaces for innovation, or innovation spaces are usually defined as spaces that create an environment where innovation can flourish and are commonly found in companies, research institute and universities. Innovation, in this sense, is widely associated to economic, design and technological advancements.

Recent research has recognized the temptation to use social innovation as a fashionable buzzword and associate it with corporate social responsibility, environmental actions or other vague tangential meanings, distancing it from its social character, as well as the political realities and ideologies behind the concept.

It is thus interesting to see that social innovation is more often than not presented in contrast with other forms of innovation around which spaces for innovation are built, drawing a line between the local university’s innovation design lab and the social innovation lab the same community shares.