Imagine a world in which Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile hadn’t supported Columbus’ plan to sail West instead of East to reach Asia. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, most monarchs and rulers around Europe had already turned him down. They too could have just said: “Sorry old man. We are not giving you a penny”. Or imagine a world in which powerful countries like the US didn’t spend almost 3% of their GDP on R&D, trying to develp - alas - new weapons most of the time, but occasionally life-changing technologies, like the Internet. Imagine a world in which innovations of all sorts didn’t rule our world, and innovators in business (like Richard Branson), in music (like the Beatles), in technology (like Steve Jobs) or in the arts (like Giotto) weren’t hailed as heroes. Well this would be a pretty dark world, close to what the Middle Ages looked like, ruled by supersticion, fear and disease. I have often argued that our ability to come up with inventive and creative solutions to the constant problems and challenges that surround us is probabily our most reassuring trait, one that gives me hope for a better and brigther future.
Now, who is better placed to come up with a lasting solution to a problem than the very person who is affected by it? Obviously, no one. The best example in this sense is still the one of young William Kamkwamba, a boy who, in order to power his family’s home in Malawi, built an electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap. He became world-famous and I am not sure whether he is still pondering how to come up with brilliant ideas, but you get my point. Inside everyone of us there is an innovator who will do his or her best to make the world a better place. In other words: a social innovator.
This is not the place for me to enter into a discussion about what social innovation really is. If you have 2 minutes, you can watch this brilliant video by Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) which gives you an excellent idea of it all. On the surface, it’s a win-win solution. Citizens (us) become more involved in their communities, come up with great ideas to make the world better, and everyone’s happier at the end. Everyone seems to be talking about social innovation these days. The UK Government’s Innovation Agency (NESTA), for example, has just launched a nation-wide campaign called Britain’s 50 New Radicals, which will celebrate “the inspiring people or organisations that have come up with ingenious, practical and scalable ways of tackling challenges in areas such as health, education, unemployment, aging, community regeneration and wellbeing”. Other nations are becoming interested, and even large corporations like Dell run annual competitions to find innovative solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges.
Except: this isn’t really how the story unfolds. At least, it wasn’t in my experience and in the experience of a lot of social innovators I know.
When I started The Hub in Milan, I arrived with a solid idea that had already been tested in other countries and that was working well: creating a shared workspace and cultural centre promoting social entrepreneurship and social innovation by connecting people and helping them develop new projects and ideas for a radically better world. It was having a social impact, it was creating social value, and it was also sustainable from a financial point of view, being based on a business model that had been implemented successfuly in other European cities like London and Amsterdam. True, there were some cultural differences, Italians are not like the Dutch or the English, prone to work in open spaces and to collaborate, but evidence suggested that these cultural differences were not going to sink the project.
I started fundraising for the social start-up I was launching. I went to foundations, to corporate sponsors, to the public sector, to investors and to social venture capitalists. I wrote and re-wrote business plans, answered countless emails detailing all sorts of things, went to endless meetings where everyone kept saying what a great project this was, how excited they were about its arrival in Italy, although unfortunately they were not in a position to fund it. One after the other one all doors were closed. On one occasion, I remember a group of venture capitalists telling us, once the space had already been launched: “Guys, we are not going to give you money, but please keep inviting us to your parties and events, because they are great and we like the vibe in here”. I had no words.
Long story short: I went to my family and told them: I need you to invest in my idea. And my family supported me. I did what the great majority of social innovators (and general innovators) do: I turned to one of the 3 Fs: Family, Friends and Fools, notoriously the only ones who will support risky (and in this case non-risky) start-ups.
This wasn’t only my experience. It echoes the story of so many other social innovators I know. My friends Augusto and Matteo over at Critical City had the most extraordinary experience ever, being promised EUR 100,000 by a group of VCs, only to be told - once the cameras were off - that it wasn’t true. They eventually got a grant from a large foundation, but not before they had stretched themselves thin trying to keep the project afloat with their own personal resources (and probably with some help from their family). It’s not just a Southern-European problem. My friend Karen recently launched a brilliant project in London, Ekologi, a noticeboard for social change that makes it easy to find funding, facilities, contacts and support. Again, it was her husband who helped her out, not NESTA, social investrors or grant-makers.
What does this tell us? It seems to me that while there is a lot of talk about supporting grassroot initiatives that are innovative and socially-relevant, the funding channels are still dry or geared towards the “usual suspects”. But isn’t this exactly the opposite of what social innovation should be about? Shouldn’t we start breaking the boundaries and walking away from the beaten path, by supporting outsiders, leftfield creatives, crazy “Cristopher Columbuses” who might just have the right idea about the shape of the world? Or at least should we not recognise the role that personal networks play for us social innovators and give recognition to them, for example through tax breaks? My idea, for example, is that when a person invests 10,000 euros in a start-up social enterprise or a socially-innovative project that has the potential to improve our society and world, they should be able to deduct this amont (or part of it, depending on whether it’s a loan, a grant or an investment) from their taxes. This would be a far more realistic reponse by policy-makers to a de-facto situation in which funders and investors are mainly talking about supporting social innovation, while the burden of forking out the cash is stil on us, our families and our friends (and the odd fool).
A little social innovation in the policy world could really change the lives of millions of people. Policy-makers: what are you waiting for to really support social innovation?