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A meeting of social innovation minds in Lisbon

What a delight to be a part of the Lisbon Social Innovation Exchange Summer School.  Over 130 social innovation thought leaders from 24 countries came together in Lisbon to explore the growing field of social innovation. The conversations were dazzling… truly the highlight were the people. For me it was deeply stimulating to be able to talk to people as driven to explore and push the boundaries in this field.

With a couple days of time to reflect, it seems to be that there were really three concurrent themes… and few interesting tensions.

Theme # 1 – public sector innovation – what are governments doing to undertake innovation within their own operations, ie, Mind Lab, La 27 Region, NESTA

Theme # 2 – advocacy to get the public sector to enable social innovation, New Zealand Centre for Social Innovation, Rootcause, The Lisbon Council

Theme # 3 – what civil society is doing to enable social innovation ie. The Hope Foundation, Amsterdam Living Lab, sitawi (social finance in Brazil)


The Public Sector Social Innovation work was simply fascinating. As someone who openly expresses her deep frustration with government bureaucracy, it was so refreshing to meet people like Christian Bason of MindLab . MindLab is a cross-ministerial innovation unit which involves citizens and businesses in developing new solutions for the public sector.  Listening to Christian bring overwhelming enthusiasm, brilliant ideas and a deep commitment to citizen-based solutions gave me hope that we might be able to begin really digging into changing the systems which often baffle us within government.

The Kafka Brigade (Amsterdam) was a brilliant adjunct to the MindLab in that they are a group of consultants that are called into action when citizens and public servants become tangled in a web of dysfunctional rules, regulations and procedures. They describe their service as “First Aid for Bureaucratic Breakdown”.

The MindLab is a project of the government and based within government, but there were a couple of fascinating examples of public innovation groups that were mandated by government, but actually functioned as third-party innovation labs. Stephane Vincent of La 27 Region runs one such group. They are an ‘outsourced’ innovation lab to the 26 regions of France that enables regions to prepare for the future and change their methods of action. In other words, the 26 regions have empowered this initiation to help them to become more innovative and competitive. Their work touches everything from agriculture, to education, social economy to diversity. Just a fascinating example of exploring how social innovation can happen.

Then there were those that were really focused on getting governments to create enabling policy to spur social innovation and the social economy.  The most exciting initiative coming out of this work is the campaign that was launched – Fixing Our Future – which basically lays out a policy framework that pushes government to stop trying to fix what didn’t work in the past and rather pushes them to thinking about the future we want and to start enabling it. Groups like the Young Foundation, The Lisbon Council, Rootcause and others are actively pushing their governments to implement such policies.

The civil society innovators were naturally the area that I felt most comfortable. These were the cluster of groups that are innovating and driving social innovation with but mostly without government.

Probably the most amazing story of this was Won-Soon Park, who runs the Hope Institute. This man is a wonder… in his brief presentation he basically laid how he and his organization had driven the creation of over a dozen different initiatives. Check out what they say…

Among the Hope Institute’s principal activities are:

The “Social Invention Center,” which gathers citizens’ ideas in order to change everyday life and institutions; The “Center for Alternatives,” which finds new, alternative policy models for our society and the worth in living life for the common good; The “Center for Public Culture,” which researches cities’ public space designs, including urban space use and the street sign culture; The “Roots Center,” which works with local residents to place our society’s focus on the local regions through efforts aimed at self-governing and regional building; and The “Hope Academy,” a school for growing public leaders who will reclaim the future of the local regions and who will lead in our times.


These are just a few of the amazing initiatives that we learned about at SIX summer institute.

The ideas were flowing… there was all sorts of interesting debate about the role of government in pushing social innovation… where is government needed? where is it not? We had some great conversations about methods and approaches, but actually, not nearly as much as I would have hoped. There was a bit of tension about whether we were learning about the social innovation process or whether we were coming together to figure out how to promote social innovation. I guess that this is a natural challenge.

The Centre for Social Innovation is a founding member of the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), but this was really our first opportunity to meet up with the other co-founders of SIX. It was exciting to imagine how this global network might be able to really influence and enable new solutions to some of our worlds most challenging problems. 

And now I am back home, and wondering what all of this means to CSI. I keep thinking about how we enable social innovation… could we be doing more? I know we could! Wish I had more resources... How to balance the business with the innovation? Struggling with how to prioritize our efforts and loathing the fact that I have to write a paper which I boldly promised called “Creating the Conditions for Social Innovation Emergence: A CSI Case Study” for a presentation in Rome in the fall. Eeek!  But having this broader context of how others are creating these enabling conditions has certainly given me a solid foundation on which to build.

It was an honour and a privilege to be around such amazing and committed people at SIX Lisbon…. And I will also add that the late night dancing til 3am certainly added the fun that brings these events to life.  I look forward to seeing this group and others next year when we reconvene this group in Singapore - July 2010.


the root cause

That was a very interestin article.