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A Social Innovation Amusement Park

Okay, well it's not really an Amusement Park, per se, but the new Social Innovation Park in Bilbao, Spain promises to be an extraordinary space of creativity, solutions and a wee dose of fun. The idea for a Social Innovation Park was originally conceved at the 2007 Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) "summer school" in San Sebastien. Looking at Silicon Valley, and the unique and powerful combination of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and institutional infrastructure, the questions was posed: Why not a "Social Silicon Valley"?

Three years later and the Social Innovation Park is becoming a reality. Bolstered by approximately 10 million euros in public and private funding, development of SI Park is beginning in earnest. I had my first chance to learn about the plan during the 2010 SIX Summer School in Singapore, but a recent trip to Bilbao helped bring it all home, thanks to Gorka Espiau Idoiaga, one of the innovators and coordinators behind the project.

While the precise vision is still being developed, the overall goal of Social Innovation Park is to create a 'campus' where people can "see and touch" social innovation and where new solutions can be conceived, prototyped and scaled; in short, it will be a place where the practice of social innovation can be developed and made visible. And by social innovation, they mean 'systemic social innovation' - the focus of the Park will be on quite significant, large-scale social innovations rather than smaller enterprises or local initiatives. (some early projects include a novel shared electric-car program, in partnership with MIT, and an effort to convene thinkers and practitioners around new models of 'social manufacturing' - reconfiguring manufacturing processes in service to a social agenda).

Led by DenokInn - the Basque Centre for Innovation, Entrepreneurship and New Business Development, the Social Innovation Park has three primary spaces. First is a sizable boat that is docked in the harbour (in this case, "boat" isn't a hip metaphor - it's actually a boat). The boat will contain an 'immersion space' - a physical space specifically designed to stimulate creativity and elicit new perspectives and ideas. A variety of user-led methodologies will be practiced here and in many ways this boat will be the creative heart of the Park. (more on immersion spaces soon - I had a wild experience at Eutokia, a new shared space in Bilbao). The land surrounding the boat - around 70,000 sq metres, will likely become home to a videogaming school campus and wineyard (!) among other activities.

Separate from these facilities will be a campus of social enterprises. This campus will include a purpose-built incubator that will help medium-sized projects understand and scale their impact. There will be an emphasis on research within this area.

Finally, there will be a training centre that will look at how we design and plan for the emerging 'social careers' that are increasingly vital to our success in fostering social change. 

Now, some of you may be asking - as I did - why Bilbao (in the Basque region of Spain - bring an umbrella!)? Bilbao, as you may know, is home to the extraordinary Gehry-designed Guggenheim (well worth the visit). And there is a perception among many people that the Guggenheim was created to put Bilbao on the map and to regenerate the economy of this traditionally mining/manufacturing region, which had been hit hard by economic challenges. But Gorka helped set me straight. It wasn't that the Guggenheim was created to bolster the city - it was that the Guggenheim was intended to help draw attention to the impressive economic turnaround that the citizens of Bilbao had already achieved. With a long tradition of deep social interconnectedness, vibrant shared culture, and the world's most impressive co-operative institution, the region of Basque - and particularly the city of Bilbao - had turned itself around by activating the skills and characteristics that come so naturally to the region. Rather than try to move the city's economic infrastructure to a service orientation, the city reinvented itself as a place of small business manufacturing, leveraging the skills and resources that existed in the community. It is a true success story and they deserve all the credit in the world for their success and for their vision in turning the region into the world's foremost hub of social innovation.

SI Park shows once again the import and creativity of this emerging sector. There is much still to develop but the possibilities are impressive, and the opportunity to connect and weave together so many interesting projects promises great things for our shared future.

For more on the SI Park, check out this SlideShare, this PDF, or this Blog Post from Louise Pulford at SIX.