I recently attended the TRANSIT conference in Rotterdam, and was reminded of that famous Einstein quote: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you always got.”
The desire for change in today’s world is all around us. There is frustration about inequality and clear evidence that the systems that shape our lives are ineffective, even broken. Surely there is a better way to share resources and address the challenges facing Europe both at a national and also a neighbourhood level: families struggling to put food on the table, young graduates who can’t find work to match their skills, refugees fleeing the dire situations in their countries in search of international protection, polluted cities, unaffordable housing, citizen disengagement…the list can sometimes feel endless.
Where are the solutions? Do we have to wait for governments and corporations? Is there a role for entrepreneurs, communities, local organisations and municipalities who directly experience the impact of these challenges? This is the realm of social innovation – new approaches and instruments that address social needs and create new capabilities. These innovations often take a focussed approach where impact can be demonstrated in a local community or with a particular customer or beneficiary group.
The TRANSIT conference focused on social innovations that contribute to transformative change – change that challenges, alters or replaces dominant institutions and structures. The event was the culmination of a 4-year research project, exploring how social innovation can work at a systemic level. By analysing social innovation networks – ways that local actors connect with their peers seeking to achieve similar change in other countries and contexts – TRANSIT set out to understand how these innovations contribute to societal transformation.
The project explored 20 networks that included basic income, the sharing economy, participatory budgeting, timebanks, alternative currencies, transition towns, hackerspaces, local energy production and crowdfunding.
I attended a session on basic income, where the discussion centred on this new instrument as an alternative to current welfare programmes. This panel discussion brought together students, politicians, activist and academics. As well as examples from cities piloting basic income like Groningen in the Netherlands we also heard about Mein Grundeinkommen in Germany, where a non-profit organization crowdsources unconditional basic incomes of €1,000 a month. To date, they have provided a year’s basic income to 12,000 people, an inspirational example of social innovation. There was agreement that basic income is still at experimentation level and that there is further work required to develop measurement tools to provide compelling evidence for policymakers. Ronald Mulder, an entrepreneur (MIES), highlighted how ‘storytelling’ has a crucial role to play and Sjir Hoeijmakers, from Effective Altruism, supported that it is the way it is communicated is very important. So should we review the name itself? Would ‘social wage’, for example, explain the concept better? Certainly the discussion could have lasted forever…
In the ‘Learning from Critical Turning Points – Evaluation for Social Innovation’ session, Saskia Ruijsink demonstrated a tool developed in TRANSIT project that facilitates learning and evaluation of social innovation. ‘Critical Turning Points’ are “moments or events in processes at which initiatives undergo or decide for changes of course”. They are breakthroughs, setbacks and surprises resulting in decisive changes. The session included a practise exercise with the ‘timeline of events’ tool through which the history of a social innovation initiative can be visualized and this was followed by a discussion about how the ‘Critical Turning Points’ let us understand the ways in which SI initiatives change over time and the different ways in which they seek to achieve social impact.
After four years of work, TRANSIT demonstrated that social innovation has the capacity of transforming our societies by challenging, altering or replacing the dominant ways of doing, thinking and organising. But the TRANSIT research project couldn’t end just providing insights, examples and findings. TRANSIT partners are therefore working collaboratively on a manifesto on transformative social innovation towards a more sustainable, just and resilient society. The final session of the conference was focused on the manifesto giving us, the attendees, the opportunity to contribute to its content. We await, with anticipation, the final version so we can share how we can all play a part in using social innovation to transform our world.