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A different perspective on ecosystems – reflections from SIE in Berlin

Author: Louise Pulford
Published Date: 1 September 2015

SIX Director Louise Pulford shares her review of the Exploring Ecosystems for Social Innovation event in Berlin.

At the end of June, we hosted a small gathering examining one of the new global trends in social innovation language – ecosystems. Under the banner of the EC-funded project, Social Innovation Europe, which SIX has been managing for the last 4 years, we brought together a small group of entrepreneurs, policy makers and funders in Berlin to understand what we mean when we use this term and consider whether it can be useful. 

A new event, with new experiences and a number of firsts. It was productive and encouraging.

This was the first event SIE has hosted in Germany, which is often unrepresented in social innovation discussions at a European level, and in the known SIE community, despite its range and volume of socially innovative activity. Various foundations, both corporate and family, are engaged in innovation across the country; there is high political interest and Chancellor Merkel dedicated this year’s International German Forum to social innovation; universities from Dortmund to Heidelberg are leading in academic social innovation research, and it is the home to brilliant innovations like Dialogue in the Dark to Neighborhood Walks. In addition, Germany looks both East and West, and is well connected to Eastern Europe, another part of Europe, which is less well represented in EU Social Innovation discussions.

This was also the first event we have hosted where the majority of participants were not already identified as members of the Social Innovation community. Our hosts, the BMW Foundations, and AEIDL (the coordinators of SIE) both brought their networks. AEIDL’s work focuses on cities and regions and on bottom up innovators who don’t identify themselves as social innovators. BMW brought philanthropists and social entrepreneurs, but not just from Germany. Along with a few of the European social innovation vanguard, we had many parts of a ‘European ecosystem’ represented.

This expanded mix of people and a new location lead to a different kind of discussion. You could be forgiven for thinking that a conversation about ecosystems might be somewhat limited. Not so. It was enjoyable and provided new perspectives, including:

  • Is it an art or is it a science? We started with: why has the concept of ecosystems become such a fad recently? The response – perhaps it’s just a new abbreviation? Is ‘ecosystem’ just a new term to describe what we knew before as an enabling environment where innovators have access to what they need throughout their lifecycle? Are we trying to create new language for a new discipline? If so, how useful is this emerging language, and to who?
  • Serendipity vs System.  Connecting to the right people/organisations can be key to success, but do we need to rely on random connections, or can we design encounters? To what extent can we facilitate serendipity? To what extent should we focus on creating and communicating an enabling environment for innovation and if we do, what are the right components? 
  • Trust vs control. Whilst we talked about the role of many different actors, the most interesting for me was the role of governments in an ecosystem which supports innovation. To be effective supporters of social innovation, to what extent must governments relinquish some control? How can we encourage the spenders of public money to support innovation, when there is no proof that a project or initiative will work? How can governments help create ecosystems which allow for experimentation?
  • There is a time for collaboration, and a time for competition. What can we learn from other sectors, like business, or from ecological metaphors about ecosystems, which will assist social innovation?  One of the features that business and ecological eco systems have in common is that not everything survives – not often the case in our sector. Too often organisations don’t close or get replaced by others, even if they are no longer effective (and when it does happen, we don’t like it). Not all innovations succeed. We need to examine how competition between organizations can drive successful innovation.

Read more insights in the report: Exploring Ecosystems for Social Innovation