Back to top

Reflections from the International German Forum on Social Innovation

Published Date: 28 January 2015

Louise Pulford reflects on the recent 2nd International German Forum that took place on 19-20 January.

From kindergartens to cooperatives, Germany has a history of social innovations that have not only been successful across the country, but have spread throughout Europe and around the world. Despite this, Germany today is mainly seen as a leader of innovations within the field of science and technology, rather than within the field of social innovation. What will it take for Germany to become a powerhouse for social ideas? What can Germany do to be seen as a leader in social innovation? The 2nd International German forum explored exactly this.

Federal Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel hosted 100 participants from governments, innovation agencies, foundations, global institutions and entrepreneurs from across the world. Through a series of thematic discussions examining issues from the societal and digital prerequisites for the capacity to innovate, to the role of politics in cooperation of players and the usual debate around key terms, dominated the question – what do we actually mean when we are we talking about capacity for innovation? Several people expressed the need to develop a shared vocabulary and a glossary of social innovation.

Various terms were used during the discussion. It would be helpful for all social innovators, but particularly helpful for governments, if we could agree on their meaning. Many of the terms suggests governments need to be open to taking advice from citizens, open to building skills from early age and relinquishing some control. Based on the discussions at the forum, here is the beginning of my glossary of terms:

  • Culture

What is a culture of innovation and how can it be nurtured?

  • Divergence

Divergent backgrounds are an essential part of social innovation.  

  • Empowerment

Innovation is a powerful instrument, but who is empowered?

  • Freedom/ Control

What does it mean to give control away? Social innovation often means giving power to the traditionally powerless.

  • Granularity

We need to be able to look at the details. We can use big data to understand things on a smaller scale

  • Mindset

What kind of mindset do we need in order to support social innovation? Are we open and non-judgemental?

  • Participation

How can all citizens become creators of their own futures?

  • Risk 

There is not enough appetite in government to experiment and learn rapidly.

  • Skills/ capacity

We all know that skills are essential for social innovation, but who needs the skills and what are they? We can build these into the education system, but what about people who work in government now? We don’t have the luxury of the time it will take to bring it into the next generation of leaders. We need to build capacity into government now, as we go along.

The forum concluded with a high level dialogue between the Chancellor and global thought leaders and practitioners, which explored how the German government can better support innovation under the title “What matters to people? Innovation and Society”.

Around the world there are several new tools and models which help governments support social innovation. The Chancellor was challenged to address how Germany can:

  • generate ideas, using new models of prizes and labs
  • access best models that can enable governments to better understand what works
  • spread and scale the best innovations, using different kinds of finance and commissioning?
  • give governments the confidence and skill to quickly experiment, prototype and learn from results, using society as a real time lab

The emphasis of this dialogue, however, was different from discussions at similar global social innovation events in which I have participated recently. The focus was not only on the practical, measurable tools. The Chancellor highlighted the “softer” challenges to supporting innovation. In particular:

1. The challenge of changing culture - the way government acts and the way it is seen

How can we change the narrative so that the government in Germany is not seen as interfering? Governments need to change the dynamic of citizen and state, we need to lose some control. We can’t always guarantee 100% security – rather we need to teach judgment and decision-making.

2. Leadership and narrative

Leadership is essential for social innovation, but who should give direction and how? We need an ambition of what the future looks like. We need to normalise social innovation by increasing awareness, increasing the capacity of society to absorb it, as well as increasing the capacity of governments to absorb it.

3. Support

By nature, innovation is uncertain and so a community of support is important, but communities don’t just emerge. Developing and nurturing a community takes time and pro-activeness – people don’t just come to communities, they need to be worked at. One of the suggested outcomes of the event was setting up a global network of learning in this field – we know from the experience within SIX that whilst this approach to global learning is essential, its not easy to maintain. Perhaps the Social Innovation Europe would be a suitable platform?

Is something happening in Germany?

I have been asked - is something happening in Germany? My answer now is - yes. Several of the speakers, including innovation gurus John Kao and Geoff Mulgan remarked that Germany had the strength and moral authority to be a social innovation leader in the world. There is not only political support at the highest level, but indications of true partnership working between foundations, entrepreneurs, civil society and academics, an openness and appetite for learning and an acceptance that there need to be a cultural shift in the attitude of the government towards innovation for society.

Look out for details of the Social Innovation Europe event, which will be hosted in Berlin this June, following on from the success of SI LIVE in November 2014.