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By Elizabeth Boggs Davidsen

Social Innovation – Moving from the Margins to the Mainstream

Mar 20, 2017

In early 2016, members of the Rockefeller Foundation got together with the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), the innovation lab for the Inter-American Development Bank Group, and established that they were both working to support social innovation labs and organizations, yet neither had the full picture.  With the MIF’s geographic focus only on Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and Rockefeller’s preference for Africa and Asia, each organization was missing out on a global perspective.  So, the idea of co-organizing a global summit of social innovation organizations was launched.  One of the first challenges was to arrive at a common understanding of a social innovation organization.  The partners agreed that the summit should include and foster the ecosystem working to achieve breakthrough solutions to serious societal challenges. Participants, therefore included: innovation labs; social accelerators and incubators working to consolidate and scale social enterprises (businesses created to further a social purpose in a financially sustainable way); social entrepreneurs (a person who establishes a social enterprise); and field builders working to finance, inform, or measure social impact.

On March 14-15, 120 leaders in the social innovation space came together in Bogota, Colombia, convened by Compartamos con Colombia, one of LAC’s more established social innovation organizations. Most participants were from Africa and Latin America, with Asia following closely and the U.S., Canada, and Europe rounding out the group.  Members from the West Africa Resilience Innovation Lab mingled with Koga Impact Lab from Paraguay; Myanmar’s Point B Design + Training exchanged notes with the Minneapolis-based Blood Orange; and Canada’s Mars Solutions Lab challenged the group to adopt a mantra of “Accelerators of Hope,” while Spain’s Social Innovation Center ESADE, reflected on how social innovation organizations play a key role in addressing inclusivity.

The adage, “Scarcity is the mother of invention” was replaced by “Disruption is the mother of innovation.” The global summit, known as #WiringtheSystem, opened with a keynote from Simone Ahuja, and a lesson on Jugaad Innovation, a colloquial Hindi word that means an innovative fix or improvised solution, but best translates as a way of thinking and acting in response to challenges and finding opportunities in the most adverse circumstances. The social innovation lab approach to problem solving, where stakeholders come together to address shared problems in new ways, was evident throughout the two-day event.  Participants shared success stories of how innovators have gone beyond single solutions to transform systems that scale their models, such as Jordan’s Innovation Labs initiated by UNICEF that is empowering the most at-risk and vulnerable youth, by providing a suite of needed services including: life skills training, access to information and technology, and opportunities to positively engage in their community. 

To help spark further innovation to solve societal challenges, several new tools were presented, such as: scenario planning, crowdsourcing techniques, and systems mapping. And, the role of technology and entrepreneurship to drive and scale social innovation assumed an important place on the agenda and organizations from Kenya, Benin, and Malaysia shared how technology is being used to advance and scale their solutions.

The need for innovation in funding approaches to seed, support, and scale social innovation organizations, entrepreneurs, and enterprises sparked a lot of debate. There was broad consensus that there are still meaningful capital gaps for supporting innovative entrepreneurial approaches and that funders (development banks, foundations, and impact investing funds) should innovate in the types of financial instruments they offer. Participants and panelists commented that filling capital gaps would require that funders expand beyond traditional grant, debt and equity to include alternative financial products such as contingent recovery grants, royalty-based loans, and fund structures that better meet the needs of social entrepreneurs. 

The two-day summit concluded with a call to action to spur this new community to move beyond rhetoric. Participants were encouraged to think about a couple of specific models or approaches that they were introduced to that could transform their own model or organization and to commit to leveraging these connections. Future summits are already being contemplated and there was a strong sense that this community could be transformative in moving social innovation from the margins to the mainstream. 

Categories: Blogs, Knowledge Economy

Elizabeth Boggs Davidsen

Elizabeth Boggs Davidsen

Elizabeth Boggs Davidsen is chief of the Multilateral Investment Fund's Knowledge Economy Unit, which seeks to cultivate the driving forces of the new economy—technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship—to promote inclusive growth and job creation in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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