Learning and sharing across borders – supporting regional innovation from Asia to Europe
By Louise Pulford
Over the last few weeks the role of SIX in fostering social innovation across borders has reached another level.
Last week, we launched SIX Asia, the first ‘official’ regional grouping of SIX. In practice SIX Asia is not a separate organisation, rather a defined cluster, giving a global identity to the key regional players, and supporting our work in the region. SIX has always had an active group of members across East Asia, and many of the most exciting social innovations come from the region – from Complaints Choirs and the many initiatives that have grown out of the Hope Institute, to the ‘DoctorMe’ phone app of Change Fusion in Thailand, and the School of Thought Initiative Singapore. And now, with the first ever 'Social Innovation Mayor' in Seoul, Won Soon Park, who has been involved in SIX for many years, the time was right to launch a regional grouping.
Key players within countries in the region are also coming together to learn and share their own experiences of doing and supporting social innovation, particularly in Hong Kong. And so, with the impetus of Ada Wong, we launched SIX Asia in Hong Kong, then with Mayor Park, in Seoul on 11 June. Ada is a lawyer, journalist and broadcaster, artist, civil society activist, local politician, serial entrepreneur and founder of one of the most innovative models of school in the world, the Lee Shau School of Creativity (yes, Ada is a another social innovator who doesn’t sleep much). The other founding partners of SIX Asia are the Lien Centre for Social Innovation in Singapore, Change Fusion in Thailand, Fuping Development Institute in China, and the Hope Institute in Seoul
Members of the Mayor of Seoul’s team who are responsible for running the Seoul City Social Innovation Bureau, first joined us in Hong Kong to take part in the Global Innovation Academy learning programmes – an intensive two day crash course in skills and methods needed throughout the innovation process. Then on Monday 11 June, the Hong Kong social innovation community - civil servants, investors and funders, designers and practitioners, came together with other international participants to discuss how SIX Asia will work. Questions about how to support individual innovators, how to get more young people involved, how to get private sectors in the region more involved and how to convince governments to support social innovation were raised, but importantly, one of the main focusses of the day was how the group could continue this conversation and really support each other.
The Mayor of Seoul then joined us to officially launch SIX Asia by hitting the gong that every participant of the School hit when it opened, to signal their commitment to their learning. All participants at the SIX Asia launch enjoyed showing their commitment in the same way.
From Hong Kong, we travelled to Seoul, for the 3rd Asian NGO summit (ANIS)– a collaboration between the Hope Institute and Intel. Participants who have attended the summit over the last 3 years said that this year, people were starting to get to know each other, and that there needs to be some way for the participants to connect between events – could ANIS become a community, rather than just a summit? My question is, surely ANIS should be part of and play a leading role in SIX Asia, rather than creating a separate community? We need to work together, and network our networks, if we really want to achieve change and impact.
I flew straight from Seoul to Oporto, Portugal, where the same conclusions about the need for regional and local networks where necessary, came out of the conference, ‘Unpacking the future – pointing north towards social innovation’. Organised and hosted by, Carlos Azvedo, who is CEO of UDIPSS, a network of 360 social service/welfare organisations in Oporto. The impetus for this conference was two fold - Oporto is the home town of Diogo Vasconcelos, and Diogo always had big ambitions for the potential of social innovation in a region which is often overshadowed by Lisbon.
This was the follow-up to a congress on social innovation which was held in Oporto in 2009, with the aim of promoting a wider national discussion on the topic, and creating a regional strategy to accelerate social innovation in Oporto, including building a network. To an extent, the aims of the congress were reached and the topic was finally part of discussions on growth and development in the region. One action that has been realised in this second congress is the internationalisation and learning process of the Portuguese Social Non-profit Sector Organisations. And the congress indeed included international participants who were mainly speakers – from Italy (social innovators but also from the Vatican!), Holland, Brussels (including a European Commission representative) and the UK.
The conversations during the conference were interesting of course, and it’s always nice to hear about social innovation from a different perspective – in a society were religion, and culture are so deeply embedded in society, how can you innovate whilst respecting these traditions? However, the most surprising thing for me leaving Oporto was the lack of a culture of sharing and working together. Most of the people participating all lived in the small city of Oporto, but rarely worked together. The focus of the workshop I co-ran was sharing with one another, of course, but it really wasn’t natural for the participants, and we engaged in a very interesting discussion about the ‘social’ element of social innovation where cross discipline and partnership working was recognised as necessary, but participants admitted, ‘we just don’t do it that way’, someone said ‘In Portugal, secret is the soul of business’. Given that the phrase ‘we are what we share’ has become associated with Diogo Vasconcelos, and it was mentioned and number of times during the conference, I was so pleased when the participants in my workshop talked about how dedicate they were to changing this way of working.
For me, it was interesting to attend two consecutive events, so different in content and style, and on different continents, in counties that appear to have no similarities at all (not even in culture and religion), yet the focus of the conversation was the same, and the solution they were looking for was the same too.
Both conferences were interested in addressing the key questions - how can we better learn and share from each other, and how can we set up appropriate regional groupings of the SIX network – whether that is across the Asia region, or in the city of Oporto. Both emphasised the importance of being part of something global, whilst having a better way to connect to other organisations in their own cities, countries and regions.
The impetus for setting up a SIX Asia cluster came from partners in the region who have travelled to SIX events, even if they were in the north of Poland in the middle of winter. Given that they could have some of these conversations at home, in their warmer climes when they are 2 hours flight away from each other, a regional grouping was an obvious environmental improvement.
On a less extreme level, Chris Sigaloff, of Kennisland, in the Netherlands, has reported a similar situation between partners in the same city, doing complimentary work, who she would only see at events in other countries. This story has a nicer outcome, as Kennisland and Waag Society have now come together and launched a social innovation manifesto for the Netherlands that can be read here.
So what is the role for SIX? Increasingly, SIX’s role is as a quiet connector, a non-competitive partner, with capacity to support these new clusters, whether they are a cluster of organisations in a city – SIX Oporto, or a country - SIX Netherlands, or SIX Australia (watch this space for news of its launch later in the Autumn), or a region like SIX Asia, or even SIX Nordic which is in development. SIX can bring the right people together, and connect networks of both practice and trust, so that people and organisations can genuinely work together and learn from each other.