Building social innovation in post-conflict places

As part of the SIX series exploring social innovation in post conflict places, Eddy Adams, SIX Adviser, spoke with Gorka Espiau. Hailing from the Basque country, Gorka was actively involved in the peace process there, and has subsequently been involved in social innovation work across the globe. This includes experience in Colombia and Croatia, which will also feature in this series.

Ed: One of the early triggers for this work came from a discussion in an URBACT meeting in San Sebastian a couple of years ago. We were trying to understand some of the initial challenges around establishing an open-innovation platform. During the conversation, someone mentioned that in cities with a conflicted background, civic trust and openness were that much harder to nurture. Given the Basque country’s renown in this area, I was surprised that it came up as an issue. Are you? Do you think a particular approach to social innovation is needed in places where there has been a history of violence and civic division?

Gorka: All conflict zones have specific characteristics, challenges and assets. If you have not lived in a violent context, it is normal to presume that specific effort needs to be done in order to generate civic trust and openness. However, there is plenty of civic trust and openness in conflict scenarios but it operates very differently. Communities in conflict don´t trust each other but internally (within that particular community), solidarity, trust and even openness to new ideas and innovations can be even richer than in “normal” societies.

In my opinion, the key is to understand and celebrate those existing assets (instead of reinforcing negative narratives about them) and present new tangible possibilities of building transformational narratives that bring communities together in certain aspects. Conflict is not a negative asset per se, it is a fundamental mechanisms for any society to progress and actually the potential driver of meaningful innovations. Violence is the factor that destroys the positive dimension of conflict but these two concepts needs to be dissociated.

Ed: I guess here you bring your own personal experience as someone who was heavily involved in the peace movement in the Basque Country. I notice that in your work you place great emphasis on the importance of movement building, as a platform for social innovation and change. Does this matter more in those places where communities have been divided in the past?

Gorka: Communities can´t generate transformational change if the whole community does not own the process. This applies to communities that have suffered violence and those who have not. But this point is especially relevant to understand the many well intentioned but unsuccessful attempts to bring change in conflict scenarios. Communities can´t own projects that have been designed by external institutions or organizations. It is the combination of endogenous initiative and external support (institutions, private sector and international partners) that has the capacity to change existing complex systems.

A movement building approach helps us to understand the complexity of interactions and the soft power necessary to generate social innovation ecosystems in conflict zones. The transformation of the Mondragon valley and the movement that represents the Mondragon Corporation is one of the most tangible examples of the potential that this bottom up approach can offer.

Ed: In terms of methodologies, we’re particularly interested in digital tools and the way in which they can help reconfigure relationships and create shared spaces. There’s evidence suggesting that these can also generate ‘contact points’ between people on different sides of a community divide. You’ve been involved in some of this work in Northern Ireland, and it’d be good to hear how important you see this – as well as in other places you have experience of.

Gorka: Digital tools can contribute enormously to movement building interventions in conflict or post-conflict societies. They allow new connections and ideas to flow, and they amplify existing and new innovations. The challenge is how to combine off and on line tools. There is vast evidence now that digital tools that are not properly rooted in local off line intervention will not generate a lasting impact and that they can easily be manipulated by the big players (governments, big corporations and political parties). In my opinion the most interesting and not properly developed field of opportunities for digital tools is how to multiply ethnographic and participatory research tools. Today, we can have thousands of people providing real time insights about what and how to do things differently but it is not properly integrated yet under a social innovation platform.

Ed: That’s food for thought, looking at future possibilities. Another shared space that is of interest to both of us relates to food itself. We both had the chance to see how in Seoul the Zipbob project is working to recreate community cohesion in a rapidly urbanised situation. We’ve also designed and run an Unusual Suspects session looking at the role of food as a social innovation catalyst. And of course, food is at the heart of Basque culture! Is it just a coincidence that we have this great surge in Basque culinary innovation – which links high-end cuisine and popular cooking – in this period following the end of the troubles?

Gorka: It is almost impossible to demonstrate causality between the success of the Basque culinary movement and the end of violence but the truth is that food gave the Basque people the possibility to project themselves internationally as an innovation society, instead of a “violent” country during an extremely difficult time. And this is huge for any place that is being stigmatized by violence.

Ed: That’s a good example of a redefined narrative – a way in which a community can transcend its past. We’ve seen in other places the range of tools that can assist this shift, and this notion of the centrality of Basque food is only one example of the close relationship between culture and identity. From your work in places transitioning to peace, can you see other clear links between culture, identity and innovation?

Gorka: The cultural dimension of the innovation process is also the key to understanding the success of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. The building did not change the economic structure (the transformation was already happening thanks to social economy actors and public/private partnerships) but provides a positive and open image in the context of violence. It is amazing to see how people forget that a Basque policeman was killed the very day before the inauguration of the building.

At the moment, the Basque University (ALC) and the Young Foundation are collaborating to better understand and measure this cultural factor that gives expression and informs the strategic decisions that key stakeholders take in post-conflict scenarios. Every conflict is different but any intervention needs to understand the existing culture (value system, narratives and cultural expressions) in order to allow the emergence of transformational narratives associated with inter-connected and very tangible actions.

Following this process, we have been able to collaborate very intensively with the Croatian Government in the design of their innovation and re-industrialization strategy and similar collaboration programs have taken place in South Africa, Northern Ireland and Colombia.

Ed: Two of those locations are on our map later this year. In October SIX is hosting its Summer School in Colombia and the Unusual Suspects Festival in Northern Ireland. Both places have nurtured a distinct social innovation culture, that you are pretty familiar with. Can you see any similarities between these? And are there any key lessons from these two places that others emerging from conflict should pay attention to?

Gorka: Unfortunately, we still look at Colombia and Northern Ireland as places where social innovation could help instead of places to learn from. This approach will reinforce the stigmatization and it will not recognize the existing assets. It is also not true. During the last decade, I have found more interesting examples of innovative solutions to emerging social needs in Colombia, Northern Ireland and other conflict zones than anywhere else. They might take different forms but they are not less important.

We have an opportunity to start the conversation in Colombia sharing the amazing examples that the country can offer to the world and enrich the conversation with other ideas and examples as a peer learning process. The challenge is how to integrate isolated initiatives within ecosystems that bring together public bodies, private sector, academia, voluntary sector and ordinary citizens in order to achieve systemic impact. And this is a challenge for all, not only those affected by violence.

Ed: Thanks a lot Gorka, for taking time to speak like this. It’s always a pleasure – and we look forward to seeing you in October!

About SIX Series on post-conflict societies

In the run to the Summer School in Colombia 2016, we developed a blog series on social innovation and peace building. How has conflicts shaped social innovation cultures across different places? What is the post-conflict legacy?

Introduction to SIX Series on post-conflict societies #1: To read Eddy Adam’s introduction to the series, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #2: For the first blog in the series, written by Eddy Adams and Gorka Espiau on the Basque peace process, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #3: For the second post, click here to read Al Etmanski’s piece on innovation and the indigenous population of Canada. 

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #4: For the third post, by Michelle Breslauer on positive peace approach links between Mexico and Colombia, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #5: Click here to read Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana’s blog on little actions that bring people together. 

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #6: To read an extract from Adam Kahane’s book entitled Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #7: To read Michelle Herman’s blog on how small communities can address traumatic past events, click here.