From bionic trees, to a low cost and less invasive complex disease detector, to a new language for colour-blindness, the sky was the limit at the 6th annual EIB Institute's Social Innovation Tournament. For the second year in a row, I had the pleasure of moderating and hosting the Tournament.
Cash prizes included more than €140,000 and multiple business mentoring awards to the prestigious INSEAD Social Entrepreneurship Executive Education Programme and a 3-6 month residency at the newly launched IRIS Regional Social Innovation Incubator in Portugal.
The 15 finalists came from 10 countries solving challenges related to the elderly, disability, the environment, health, refugees, unemployment and more. The projects were from different sectors, countries and varied in their scope, stage and scale. However, they were united in their personal passions for change and determination to succeed. As a finalist from a previous year said 'this is not easy work...you need to be your own motivation when it gets hard'.
However, the diversity of projects certainly did not make the jury's decision any easier. It's hard to judge a social project against a technical piece of hardware. It's even harder when the projects are on such different scales - some of which are still ideas and desperately need capital, whilst others are looking to scale into neighbouring countries. And as one jury member told me 'sometimes, there's not even agreement on what social innovation is'.
I love being part of the Tournament. The prizes have the ability to transform these projects and take them to the next level. And as the challenges we face grow in complexity around Europe and the rest of the world, we definitely need new solutions and inspiration.
For me personally, I loved hearing ideas that I've never heard before, particularly those projects that adopted an inclusive and holistic approach to their thinking and practice. This included play parks for disabled children that were fully inclusive encouraging more collaboration and connection between all children (MagikMe). There was a social enterprise that employed blind and visually impaired women to detect for breast cancer (Discovering Hands). They were employed 'not because of their disability, but because of their amazing and unique capabilities'. Their sense of touch is much greater than non-visually impaired people meaning that they could detect lumps much smaller than self-assessment. The fact that the detectors spent 30 minutes with the patients and couldn't see them helped to develop trust and eliminate any body shame that the patients might have.
As the philanthropic arm of the European Investment Bank, the EIB Institute plays a crucial role in supporting the social innovation ecosystem across Europe. After hosting the Tournament last year in Ljubljana, it appears that the Government has only continued to engage in this field. This includes hosting a high-profile summit on the social economy in the region with the Prime Minister in April 2017 (you can see my thoughts here from the panel I hosted at the Summit).
It was great to hear that the wheels were already beginning to turn in Riga following last week's event. After speaking with the Social Entrepreneurship Association of Latvia, I found she was delighted with the international attention on social innovation and social entrepreneurship and hoped that she could continue the momentum in the country to further the discussion around the needs and opportunities going forward.
With the number and strength of the applicants growing each year, the Tournament and other challenge prizes like it, are only helping to help spread the word of social innovation. With the weight of the EIB behind it, the Tournament helps to provide the recognition to finalists that can open doors and influence other institutions. As President of the EIB, Werner Hoyer, said 'Europe has an important history of social innovation and the EU Bank and the EIB Institute have an important obligation to nurture the great innovation potential that exists in Europe...This competition is designed to distinguish and nurture these entrepreneurs'.
Although prizes are great, they're not the whole picture. Prizes and tournaments do a great job of uncovering and discovering hidden talents. As Werner Hoyer, President of the EIB said ' The social innovators (here today) are a great example of the sometimes undiscovered innovation capacity around us'. However, we know that social innovation needs to be nurtured and supported continuously. It's exciting to see the active role the EIB are taking in continuing to nurture the ecosystem - including supporting the IRIS regional social incubator in Portugal, organising an investor fair for previous winners and continuing to broker partnerships across the region.
It seems unfair to include highlights from the Tournament given how fantastic all of the projects were. If you would like to see more information, I highly recommend reading through the 15 finalists here. I'm already excited for what next year will bring in Copenhagen with a special focus on the circular economy and sustainable development.