Global Festival of Action

Organised by the UN SDG Action Campaign with the support of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the German Federal Foreign Office, the Global Festival of Action brings together the global community taking action to make the Sustainable Development Goals a reality. It will recognize and celebrate the innovators, conveners and breakthrough actors who are transforming lives and generating practical solutions to some of the world’s most intractable problems.

Taking place in Bonn each year, the Global Festival of Action for Sustainable Development provides a dynamic and interactive space to showcase the latest innovations, tools and approaches to SDG implementation and connect organizations and individuals from different sectors and regions to exchange, build partnerships, and make the impact of their solutions scale.

I am really honored to take part in the panel that will present the Work4Progress initiative powered by La Caixa Foundation.

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Forging empowering civic narratives

At the beginning of 2017, the McConnell Foundation embarked on a project to share learning about how social change happens. Rather than share the perspectives of their own team, they went outside McConnell, wanting to amplify the incredible efforts of individuals working on transforming systems in diverse fields. That project became “Countless Rebellions,” an interview series dedicated to exploring social innovation and systems change. This is a summary of the interview I have recorded for this series:


“When you think back to when you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I studied journalism so I guess that was what I wanted to be.  I’m from Bilbao and there was at the time a lot of violence and a deep social and economic crisis. It was a perfect storm at the end of the Spanish dictatorship. That has conditioned the way I see things and why I’m doing what I’m trying to do.

What did you end up becoming?

I don’t know. I have three kids. They keep asking me what I do and it’s really difficult to explain. Sometimes I respond that I am a journalist, just to avoid the complexity of explaining. But if we look at it from the social innovation perspective, I think I’ve become a movement builder around social innovation initiatives, connecting grassroots initiatives with public and private institutions in order to make them scale … But, it’s a very difficult definition.

Can you describe the scale of the problem(s) that you work on?

It depends on the place. For example, in Montreal, we are working on how to generate a movement of transformation in the city. We are talking about a very large scale. How do we connect the key institutions of the city — public and private — with ordinary citizens, in order to create a movement of transformation? These are very big worlds and it’s a very ambitious vision. But, at the same time, this has implications for how you tackle, for example, security or transportation in a particular street in Montreal. We are operating at the macro and the micro level all the time.

We’ve been asking all of the key protagonists. They never say “We made this decision, or we made the right investment.” They always refer to the values.

I’m trying to bring new actors into the discussion that have the capacity to operate on a larger scale. For example, I’m working very closely with the Mondragon corporative. It’s the largest industrial corporative in the world. They created their own social innovation ecosystem out of nothing. They created their own schools, their own companies, their own banks, their own universities — everything — out of nothing, during really difficult times.

What are you learning about right now?

We are finalizing this work with Mondragon cooperative, so I’m learning about the logic of the private sector, but also about the connection between the private sector and social transformations. I’m also learning a lot about the cultural dimension of innovation and of transformation processes.

What does the cultural dimension of social innovation look like?

I’ve been involved in analyzing the transformation of the Basque area. It was a really difficult situation only a few years ago. Now we have a social-economic model that incorporates equality at the heart of the system.  We’ve been asking the key people that were involved in the transformation about why did they made certain decisions. For example, the decision of building the Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry in Bilbao. That idea is celebrated internationally. At the time it was a mad idea. To think, at the time, that the Guggenheim would come to Bilbao was totally irrational because there were no conditions for such a thing to happen.

Positive transformation is generated when everybody feels they are allowed to generate innovation.

We’ve been asking all of the key protagonists. They never say “We made this decision, or we made the right investment.” They always refer to the values. They always say, “we did this because we were serving a set of values about how to transform this society, and those values helped us to create a history of ourselves that was aspirational, connected with reality, and then the decisions were made based on those narratives and values.”

This is what we have documented, and this is consistent with a lot of research about long-term aesthetic decisions that are normally made based on values. There is evidence about how we make decisions. It is always a combination of rational, and value-based thinking. But we haven’t really explored what the soft cultural space is. Through an ethnographic process, we have identified in the case of Mondragon five core values that that are still present in that company today. If we can demonstrate that successful projects were actually implemented on a common value system, then we can understand a lot about how successful transformations in the social sphere — territorial but also thematic — incorporate this cultural dimension. By culture, we mean the set of values, the narratives, the beliefs and the aesthetic decisions that are made by a group, by a city, by a particular society in a particular period of time.

Is there anything you’ve noticed that people get wrong about social innovation?

For me, the most important thing is how innovation takes place at the community level. I think we have it totally wrong, applying the myth of the solo entrepreneur, the myth of Silicon Valley, which is all about the individual. This is false, it doesn’t exist, and when it happens, it has a negative social impact.

Positive transformation is generated when everybody feels they are allowed to generate innovation. We have seen this in the Mondragon experience, but we have also seen that in our work in Leeds, in the UK, and this is what we are documenting in Montreal at the moment.”

Finding Elvis

On 6 June 1992 the village of Miljevina, 64 km southeast of Sarajevo, was shelled and attacked by Serbian paramilitaries. Six year old Elvis, his sister Elvira, their parents and their grandmother had to flee their home. Another 22,500 Muslims, the majority of local population, also fled. The family made its way through the Bosnian mountains to Varazdin in Croatia over 18 days where they found shelter in an abandoned military base that had been turned into a refugee camp. They were to spend the next 3 years here, waiting for the conflict to finish. At this time, Björn Steinz was finishing his civil service, an alternative to military service, in Germany and felt compelled to contact ‘Christlicher Friedensdienst’ (Christian Peace Service) which sent volunteers to the Balkans. During the winter of 1992 he travelled to Varazdin where he met Elvis and the family for the first time.

I had the privilege to meet both of them there. This is the story photographed by Björn


SIX Series: Building social innovation in post-conflict places

As part of the SIX series exploring social innovation in post conflict places, Eddy Adams, SIX Adviser, spoke with Gorka Espiau. Hailing from the Basque country, Gorka was actively involved in the peace process there, and has subsequently been involved in social innovation work across the globe. This includes experience in Colombia and Croatia, which will also feature in this series.

Ed: One of the early triggers for this work came from a discussion in an URBACT meeting in San Sebastian a couple of years ago. We were trying to understand some of the initial challenges around establishing an open-innovation platform. During the conversation, someone mentioned that in cities with a conflicted background, civic trust and openness were that much harder to nurture. Given the Basque country’s renown in this area, I was surprised that it came up as an issue. Are you? Do you think a particular approach to social innovation is needed in places where there has been a history of violence and civic division?

Gorka: All conflict zones have specific characteristics, challenges and assets. If you have not lived in a violent context, it is normal to presume that specific effort needs to be done in order to generate civic trust and openness. However, there is plenty of civic trust and openness in conflict scenarios but it operates very differently. Communities in conflict don´t trust each other but internally (within that particular community), solidarity, trust and even openness to new ideas and innovations can be even richer than in “normal” societies.

In my opinion, the key is to understand and celebrate those existing assets (instead of reinforcing negative narratives about them) and present new tangible possibilities of building transformational narratives that bring communities together in certain aspects. Conflict is not a negative asset per se, it is a fundamental mechanisms for any society to progress and actually the potential driver of meaningful innovations. Violence is the factor that destroys the positive dimension of conflict but these two concepts needs to be dissociated.

Ed: I guess here you bring your own personal experience as someone who was heavily involved in the peace movement in the Basque Country. I notice that in your work you place great emphasis on the importance of movement building, as a platform for social innovation and change. Does this matter more in those places where communities have been divided in the past?

Gorka: Communities can´t generate transformational change if the whole community does not own the process. This applies to communities that have suffered violence and those who have not. But this point is especially relevant to understand the many well intentioned but unsuccessful attempts to bring change in conflict scenarios. Communities can´t own projects that have been designed by external institutions or organizations. It is the combination of endogenous initiative and external support (institutions, private sector and international partners) that has the capacity to change existing complex systems.

A movement building approach helps us to understand the complexity of interactions and the soft power necessary to generate social innovation ecosystems in conflict zones. The transformation of the Mondragon valley and the movement that represents the Mondragon Corporation is one of the most tangible examples of the potential that this bottom up approach can offer.

Ed: In terms of methodologies, we’re particularly interested in digital tools and the way in which they can help reconfigure relationships and create shared spaces. There’s evidence suggesting that these can also generate ‘contact points’ between people on different sides of a community divide. You’ve been involved in some of this work in Northern Ireland, and it’d be good to hear how important you see this – as well as in other places you have experience of.

Gorka: Digital tools can contribute enormously to movement building interventions in conflict or post-conflict societies. They allow new connections and ideas to flow, and they amplify existing and new innovations. The challenge is how to combine off and on line tools. There is vast evidence now that digital tools that are not properly rooted in local off line intervention will not generate a lasting impact and that they can easily be manipulated by the big players (governments, big corporations and political parties). In my opinion the most interesting and not properly developed field of opportunities for digital tools is how to multiply ethnographic and participatory research tools. Today, we can have thousands of people providing real time insights about what and how to do things differently but it is not properly integrated yet under a social innovation platform.

Ed: That’s food for thought, looking at future possibilities. Another shared space that is of interest to both of us relates to food itself. We both had the chance to see how in Seoul the Zipbob project is working to recreate community cohesion in a rapidly urbanised situation. We’ve also designed and run an Unusual Suspects session looking at the role of food as a social innovation catalyst. And of course, food is at the heart of Basque culture! Is it just a coincidence that we have this great surge in Basque culinary innovation – which links high-end cuisine and popular cooking – in this period following the end of the troubles?

Gorka: It is almost impossible to demonstrate causality between the success of the Basque culinary movement and the end of violence but the truth is that food gave the Basque people the possibility to project themselves internationally as an innovation society, instead of a “violent” country during an extremely difficult time. And this is huge for any place that is being stigmatized by violence.

Ed: That’s a good example of a redefined narrative – a way in which a community can transcend its past. We’ve seen in other places the range of tools that can assist this shift, and this notion of the centrality of Basque food is only one example of the close relationship between culture and identity. From your work in places transitioning to peace, can you see other clear links between culture, identity and innovation?

Gorka: The cultural dimension of the innovation process is also the key to understanding the success of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. The building did not change the economic structure (the transformation was already happening thanks to social economy actors and public/private partnerships) but provides a positive and open image in the context of violence. It is amazing to see how people forget that a Basque policeman was killed the very day before the inauguration of the building.

At the moment, the Basque University (ALC) and the Young Foundation are collaborating to better understand and measure this cultural factor that gives expression and informs the strategic decisions that key stakeholders take in post-conflict scenarios. Every conflict is different but any intervention needs to understand the existing culture (value system, narratives and cultural expressions) in order to allow the emergence of transformational narratives associated with inter-connected and very tangible actions.

Following this process, we have been able to collaborate very intensively with the Croatian Government in the design of their innovation and re-industrialization strategy and similar collaboration programs have taken place in South Africa, Northern Ireland and Colombia.

Ed: Two of those locations are on our map later this year. In October SIX is hosting its Summer School in Colombia and the Unusual Suspects Festival in Northern Ireland. Both places have nurtured a distinct social innovation culture, that you are pretty familiar with. Can you see any similarities between these? And are there any key lessons from these two places that others emerging from conflict should pay attention to?

Gorka: Unfortunately, we still look at Colombia and Northern Ireland as places where social innovation could help instead of places to learn from. This approach will reinforce the stigmatization and it will not recognize the existing assets. It is also not true. During the last decade, I have found more interesting examples of innovative solutions to emerging social needs in Colombia, Northern Ireland and other conflict zones than anywhere else. They might take different forms but they are not less important.

We have an opportunity to start the conversation in Colombia sharing the amazing examples that the country can offer to the world and enrich the conversation with other ideas and examples as a peer learning process. The challenge is how to integrate isolated initiatives within ecosystems that bring together public bodies, private sector, academia, voluntary sector and ordinary citizens in order to achieve systemic impact. And this is a challenge for all, not only those affected by violence.

Ed: Thanks a lot Gorka, for taking time to speak like this. It’s always a pleasure – and we look forward to seeing you in October!

17th Annual Lax Conference. Swarthmore College

1280px-Formal_Logo_of_Swarthmore_College,_Swarthmore,_PA,_USA.svgThe Jonathan R. Lax ’71 Conference on Entrepreneurship returns for its 17th year on Saturday, aiming to align the interests of business and society. The annual conference will feature a panel discussion, networking opportunities, and the popular SwatTank Student Innovation competition. The theme of the day is shared or sustainable value — that is, businesses actively changing their practices to not only do good business but good for society.

“It’s really a blended approach to business, merging commercial goals and social values, to create greater impact,” says Denise Crossan, Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues in Social Change, who tapped colleagues within The Young Foundation, a nonprofit think tank in London that uses social innovation to ease inequities, and the European Union for the conference.

Among them is Baroness Glenys Thornton, CEO of the Young Foundation, who helped to pass the Equality Act of 2010 and contributed to the Equal Marriage Act, Forced Marriage Act, and legislation on violence against women in the UK.

Gorka Espiau, director of places and international affairs at The Young Foundation, will also participate. As head of the foundation’s Places program, Espiau fosters innovation and creative partnerships to tackle inequality and promote urban growth around the world.

At Espiau’s recommendation, Ibon Zugasti, director of social innovation research and development at Mondragon Engineering and Business Solutions, will also appear. Zugasti guides strategic planning of new business opportunities and product development with an eye toward finding solutions to social issues.

A fourth speaker is Juan José Ibarretxe, who was elected to the Basque Parliament in 1986 and served as president of Spain’s Basque Autonomous Community from 1999 to 2009.

“It’s a wonderful array of people used to putting people first, investing social values in business, and working to create impactful social change within communities and countries,” says Crossan.

Thornton will also serve as a judge of the fourth annual Swat Tank competition, which features presentations from the competition’s three teams of student finalists. There will also be a panel discussion, moderated by Espiau, on the reinvention of capitalism.

Among the other speakers at the conference are Steve Dean ’11, the co-founder of Jobsuitors, a platform that takes the algorithms and principles of the online dating industry and applies them to recruiting in order to match job seekers to their best-fit employers; Eleanor Joseph ’07, the co-founder and CEO of Ubuntu Capital, which empowers individuals and small and medium-sized companies in emerging markets to develop their businesses; and Christopher Leinberger ’72, a land-use strategist, professor, developer, researcher, and author, who balances business realities with social and environmental concerns.

The conference will also have affinity lunches to engage students, parents, and alumni in lively conversation, and discussion groups exploring shared value in entrepreneurship, organizational management, and the field of social investing. Crossan sees the conference as a response to growing interest among the College community in social innovation and social entrepreneurship.

“There’s a huge opportunity for students in particular to understand and explore how they can go forward in their post-grad careers, embracing the idea of thriving in the world of business, whilst remaining true to the strong principles and social values they acquire at Swarthmore,” she says.

“Liberal arts thinking meets entrepreneurship in a social values context — there’s a lovely marriage there.”

About the Lax Conference

While at Swarthmore, Jonathan R. Lax ’71 created a mutual fund that he ran from his dorm room, one of many businesses he would start, and run, successfully. The Lax Conference honors his entrepreneurial spirit and practical nature by bringing together intellectual discussion with pragmatic conversations about starting and sustaining an entrepreneurial venture. Each year, the Conference attracts approximately 150 alumni, students, and friends who come to discuss entrepreneurship in all forms.

Social Innovation Hardware and Software

Last week, the Young Foundation and Buiding Change Trust presented the first results of the Amplify NI initiative. Community associations, third sector organizations, social enterprises, philanthropic institutions, public and private sector leaders and anonymous individuals established a spontaneous National Forum on Social Innovation aiming to discover how a new movement of social transformation in Northern Ireland could look like.

Movement building requires hardware and software.We need hardware – tangible and interconnected projects that will tackle the priorities identified through Amplify NI ethnographic research.And we need software: new transformational narratives based on common values and aspirations.

Social innovation software can be found in the common values and narratives shared within a particular community. Particularly interesting and useful is social software that helps us to understand our strengths, challenges and priorities – but also other values and narratives people would like to associate with. They say a lot about how we see ourselves and why we take certain decisions.

Participants in the Amplify NI event highlighted deep and rooted inequalities that stand in the way of progress. Despite intensive efforts, many of these inequalities remain, along with a unique set of challenges borne out of deeply-held negative values and self-perceptions.But they also spoke about ingenuity, belonging, warmth and resilience as fundamental societal assets of Northern Ireland.

The region is brimming with creative, resilient people committed to building a stronger, more equal and prosperous society. We just need new narratives that describe what is possible and new actions to make it real. As a self-defending mechanism, societies emerging from conflict tend to expect the most difficult scenarios. Resilience becomes a non-voluntary asset but it also narrows what is achievable in all levels of society.

For all these reasons Amplify is working together to tell new narratives about our cities, towns and communities that focus on our positive values and that re-envision our shared future. We need more self-confidence and aspirational goals. It is our strong belief that a new transformational narrative that would enlarge the scope of what is possible could make a breakthrough contribution in a moment of redefining what Northern Ireland can achieve after the end of violence and in the context of reinventing the traditional welfare state.

The right software is necessary for social innovation hardware to be effective. Those stories help us to set up the priorities that each community should tackle and potential innovations to be tested. Amplify Northern Ireland has identified and contributed to scale 24 initiatives with the drive and potential to kick start responsive projects associated with new aspirations.

Activate, Afterthoughts NI, Agora, Ardoyne Youth Club, Art for me, Bee friends, BKN and the rest of the 24 innovations are the best example of what is Today needed and possible applying the power of social innovation.

Join the movement!

Check out the website to find out more about Amplify NI.