Social innovation never stops

13 Oct 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 13 Oct 2017

Deirdre Mortell
Deirdre Mortell

Northern Ireland needs greater focus on innovative solutions. Substantial and dedicated funding would help – but good ideas are just as necessary.

Social innovation is nothing new. It’s also not going anywhere.

Fresh approaches to existing problems are just something that people develop. As a species we are a resourceful lot.

Social innovation, as terminology, is in one sense just a buzzword. But that does not do it justice. Clarifying and characterising the ways in which we solve issues is important and allows us to create processes to do this as best we can.

Northern Ireland is pretty skint right now, whether or not we get the extra £1bn promised from Westminster, which brings the importance of clever fixes right into the spotlight.

However, that is not to say that social innovation was less important when we had more spare cash, or will be if and when we find ourselves collectively richer.

Value for money is always important, and finding approaches that actually fix problems – health inequalities, educational underachievement, social unrest, and on and on – or at least lessen them in some substantial way is not an afterthought, it is the whole point.

There are plenty of organisations in Northern Ireland working on innovation – it is one of the Building Change Trust’s five key areas, is central to the work of the Young Foundation, and of course is something NICVA seeks to drive forward (and they are running a series of workshops on this area until late November).

In fact, next week the Building Change Trust is running FuSIon Fest, a two-day festival in Belfast and L’Derry looking at social innovation.

Central services

The festival’s keynote speakers include Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project and probably one of the most high-profile social innovators in the UK, and Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Social Innovation Fund Ireland.

Social Innovation Fund Ireland describes itself as “the venture capital fund of the social innovation sector” in RoI. It works with the third sector to develop new ideas, then matches the funding obtained from other sources – private firms, charitable trusts, wherever – in order to “back social innovators to sustain [innovative solutions], scale them and maximise their impact.”

Ms Mortell gave a speech, at the Clann Credo conference in March 2012, that is worth reprising – because it is possible to see just how backing for innovation has grown in that period but, at the same time, how the calls to action are really just as relevant today.

“National Social Innovation Funds have been created in a number of different countries with great success so far. These include in Europe – Scotland, Serbia and Finland, as well as the more well-known one in the USA. What they do and how they do it vary considerably.

“In Scotland, “Inspiring Scotland” was created as a joint venture between a foundation (Lloyds TSB Foundation) and the government, and it targets exclusively child and youth programmes that reduce the effects of disadvantage. Operating as a charity, entirely separate from government, they have had considerable success so far… The Serbian Social Innovation Fund has focused on increasing the coverage of social services, increasing its coverage from 12 to 100 local authority areas with €7 million of government funding.

“The Obama Administration in the USA created several social innovation funds, targeting different sectors, and based in different departments… These funds were directed at voluntary organisations with innovations that addressed the fund’s objectives, could demonstrate that they could deliver the outcomes they promised, and could raise the matching funds.”

The benefits of funding social innovation have come into focus over the past decade. At the time of this speech the RoI Social Innovation Fund had been approved before becoming operational in 2013.

Northern Ireland

NI does not have statutory support that is quite as ironclad – but nor has innovation been ignored.

Three years ago the then Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment – now the Department for the Economy – published the Innovation Strategy for Northern Ireland 2014-2025, which sought to boost new ideas generally, and gave more than a nod to social innovation, in particular.

“Modernisation and promotion of change will continue to be promoted within the local and community sector through delivery of the PfG commitment ‘Support Social Enterprise Growth’. To build on this we will develop a new social innovation working group…

“In parallel, we are committed to developing a sustainable social innovation ecosystem which will be supported within the context of the Economic Strategy, working collaboratively with organisations such as the Young Foundation, NESTA and the Building Change Trust.

“Through the establishment of social innovation accelerators and the use of prizes, innovators will be able to identify new opportunities leading to wider systemic change in Northern Ireland society. To drive this forward we will establish accelerator programmes in Belfast and the North West to act as key catalysts for social innovators in Northern Ireland; and develop social innovation challenges and prizes.”

This was more about cradling ideas than financing them – although, more on that later – and despite our local political problems there has been some progress, most of which was due to work from the third sector, and the Young Foundation (whose Accelerator Programme supports innovation) and Building Change Trust (which is offering a seed fund for ideas as part of its Social Innovation arm) specifically.

Innovation has support, but it needs more. Our political leaders need to find as much money as possible to develop value-for-money schemes that can have a real impact on communities.

This transcends the Stormont impasse – although it is wild to remember that the Minister who signed off on that DETI Innovation Strategy to 2025 was Arlene Foster; so much has happened since – and applies equally well to whatever political leadership we end up with, be that a local Executive or administration from the NIO or whatever else.

Nevertheless, it’s not all about money – fundamentally this is about ideas.

The power of social innovation is a call to arms from everyone, and the third sector in particular, which needs to be inventive, bold and rigorous (and there are great examples of this).

We recognise social innovation as something powerful but its potential has not yet been realised – nor has the necessity for innovations to continue and evolve.

If we ease some problems new ones will emerge. The nature of the issues we face as a society changes over time. Innovative thinking is not something just for the present, it needs to become part of our everyday approach into the future as well.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.