Daniela Olejarova is an experienced social innovator from Slovakia, with a speciality in organizational and community development. She is currently in residence at The Young Foundation. We’ve asked her to share her thoughts on social innovation in Slovakia. In this first post, Daniela lays out the Slovakian context, and explores why social innovation hasn’t caught on more widely despite many individual successes.
Imagine a country where – similar to George Orwell’s 1984 – only a single opinion and perception of reality were permitted to exist. Unfortunately, such was the context of many Central and Eastern European countries, including Slovakia, for more than 40 years. Twenty four years later, Slovak society is still struggling with allowing itself to think “out of the box” and be innovative in different areas – technology, research, politics or social issues. According to the 2011 European Innovation Scoreboard, Slovakia is one of the lowest ranking countries for innovation performance in general. Despite high ranking on human resources (top 5 – right after the UK!), the opposite is true (bottom 5) when it concerns open, excellent research systems or intellectual assets. There are some excellent examples of successful social innovation within Slovakia, which I’ll be highlighting in a subsequent blog post. However, they are islands within a broader culture that does not understand or support them. What prevents Slovak innovation leaders from fully developing their potential?
When we talk about social innovations, we shouldn’t neglect the fact that the word “social” has a common root with “socialist”, which for years has had a very bad connotation in the minds of Slovaks. For almost 20 years in the post-Communist period, the invisible hand of the free market was applied to almost all areas of life – from industry and finance to culture or social issues, and sometimes even in relationships or community life. The early 1990’s upsurge of enthusiasm from newly attained freedom was followed by an increase in corruption and cronyism carried out by all types of political elites. During the past five years, the global crisis, disintegration of the right-wing political spectrum in Slovakia and a pendulum swing to the left wing party has led to a re-evaluation of the panacea pill of the free market economy. Currently, almost everybody is aware that we have to look for new models to organize our society if it is to be sustained long-term. Therefore, a stronger emphasis is now being put on communities, sustainability and innovations at all levels.
At the same time, the concept of social innovation is not recognized broadly in Slovakia. Individual “social innovation islands” have existed within our society for years – many times even without being aware that what they had been doing could be called a social innovation. Topics like corporate social responsibility or fair trade have been promoted for almost a decade. Understanding that all actors in society are important is slowly being rooted in our social consciousness. Individual cases of innovative approaches to community development, integration of Roma communities, funding or new services can be found throughout Slovakia. Some research attempts have been made as well as initial steps in pooling socially responsible funding. Examples of social enterprises exist, although only some can be considered good practice.
Using The Young Foundation’s social innovation spiral (see pg 11) as a reference, the majority of social innovations in Slovakia have come as prompts, proposals, prototypes or sustaining innovations. Most have yet to scale up or achieve a systemic change in society. As I mentioned, there are many inspiring examples of successful social innovation in Slovakia, some of which I will be highlighting in my next post. By and large, there have been a number of people who eventually took up the challenge, remained persistent in the face of difficulties and have come up with the ideas that – with much iteration and many changes – got implemented in practice to the benefit of the larger community. But if good practice can be found in any country, what makes the difference in the innovation level at the national scale? In my opinion, the main difference may be the momentum which the individual efforts build and which gets transformed into the innovation culture in a society. Such a culture can then become a fertile ground for finding solutions to new social issues as they arise instead of considering social innovators to be outliers from the mean. In Slovakia, I guess, we will just have to continue building the momentum!
Disclaimer: This blog was conducted within the project “Learn from the Best” which has been funded with support from the European Commission within the LLP – Mobility (PLM). This blog reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.