The Future of Social Innovation in the Arab Region


In partnership with the International Forum for Social Innovation 2020 (ISIF), which was organised in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, SIX brought together a group of speakers and panellists from ISIF to discuss what is needed to build more support for social innovation in the future.

Participants represented 11 countries across the Arab region and beyond – from Somalia to Saudia Arabia, from Egypt to India, and from Kenya to Bahrain – and included social entrepreneurs, social enterprise networks and support organisations, academics, and leaders in foundations, businesses and the public sector. Despite vastly different geopolitical, historical, economic and cultural contexts, all agreed that COVID-19 has highlighted the need for greater cross-sector and cross-country collaboration, learning and exchange.

Please see the bottom of the page for the Arabic version.

Challenges and big questions

  • Sustaining the energy of individuals – we cannot afford to overlook the wellbeing of social innovation leaders who are trying to make positive changes in their economies and societies, whilst trying to survive – let alone grow – in particularly challenging environments. This work has a lot of obstacles and setbacks. How can the local ecosystem better support the wellbeing of individuals during their journeys?
  • Developing the ecosystem – there are many innovative models creating social value, but there is a lack of finance, legal frameworks and other important infrastructure to support them. What are the collective assets and leverage points within local innovation ecosystems to develop the opportunities? 
  • Getting the political support – government entities claim to understand what it takes to build social innovation ecosystems, but often come up short with the frameworks, policies and incentives to achieve and sustain this. How can social innovators champion this change, and create the right pressure for these changes to occur?
  • Offering hope for young people – the main goal for many young people is to leave the region. Engaged and motivated youth-created healthier economies for all. What will it take for young people to feel that their future is brighter at home?

Opportunities for action 

COVID-19 has revealed where there is real desperation and where it has become inexcusable not to help. This has created a sense of urgency which can in turn create an openness towards different ways of doing things and organising. There are several emerging opportunities to build transformative social innovation in the region, many of which are about fundamentally different perspectives and approaches. These include:

  • Rethinking business models which address the complexity of social challenges today and can be branded in a way that is appealing to the wider market.
  • Rethinking finance and creating alternative funding solutions. This might include new kinds of community currency.
  • Investing in youth means harnessing the energy, dedication and creativity of young people and adopting participatory approaches with them when designing solutions.
  • Collaborating across sectors means finding tools and mechanisms to define the role and benefits for every sector in creating a thriving innovation ecosystem.
  • Embedding innovation in policy begins when ordinary people feel a responsibility towards social challenges, and then find the support to move these ideas from the community experience to legislation, from people to policy. 
  • Highlighting what’s on the ground by building an accurate picture of how social innovation is being thought about, talked about and (most importantly) practised locally.
  • Cutting through the noise by offering visibility and platform to the players in the ecosystem that are fast becoming champions of the change.
  • Enabling the enablers because although there is often a long-standing relationship and knowledge between social innovation leaders, we need more robust collaboration, more bridging leaders, and more investment in the people behind the organisations.
  • Finding the right allies because although foreign investment has been useful to spark change, it has shifted incentives and mindsets away from collective, local ownership, responsibility and support.

Creating small shifts in big institutions because we need new energy, and whilst we don’t need the same institutions doing the same things, we must find ways to make transformative social innovation more readily understood and accepted.

What’s next for building social innovation in the Arab region?

We came together to explore social innovation in the Arab region as it looks today, but we must ask “What next?” Our immediate action is to find uses for social innovation in response to the pandemic. We may begin by asking questions that guide our visions for the future, like:

  • Where do we – as a regional innovation ecosystem – want to be in 20 years’ time?
  • What can we codesign as a statement, framework or plan for achievable action?
  • What and who do we invite to shape our near and long term futures?
  • How can we create local ownership of existing problems through resilient social entrepreneurship and new business models?
  • How can we encourage and sustain existing entrepreneurs and innovators?
  • What can countries in the region learn from each other in terms of trends and practices that have worked and could be applicable elsewhere? 
  • How can we learn from the rest of the world, but also share our knowledge and examples globally?
  • How do policy conversations differ from place to place and what is needed for success?
  • What are the pain points and how can these be turned to global examples of hope, determination and lasting change?

Ideas from SIX/examples of regional ecosystem building work what we’ve done before

For over a decade, SIX has been supporting national and regional ecosystems through a series of cross-sector convenings, capacity building activities, community-building initiatives, policy influencing, and mapping exercises. Below are some examples: 

Social Innovation Europe Initiative (SIE) – 2009-present 

SIX helped the European Union run its first pilot programme dedicated to social innovation – Social Innovation Europe (SIE). SIE ran from 2009 – 2014represented the first major effort to build and streamline the social innovation field in Europe. SIE became a meeting place where innovative thinkers from Europe can come together to propel Europe to lead the practice of social innovation globally. It became an indispensable resource providing the latest information on European social innovation, featuring interviews with prominent innovators, case studies of successful ventures, the latest research, and in-depth analysis from the leading thinkers in the field. Valuable relationships as policymakers, academics, entrepreneurs and third-sector workers were catalysed through SIE to create a common understanding of what social innovation is and what it can do.

The European Commission then increased its investment in social innovation, and SIX developed a new programme to respond and connect to the growing, but disconnected, social innovation activity in Europe. SIE became SIC (Social Innovation Community), a 12 partner consortium project running until 2019. Under SIC, we created the Lisbon Declaration – a set of 10 policy ideas for how the EU can continue to promote social innovation, which influenced the current Framework Programme – Horizon Europe.

Seoul, South Korea – 2009-present

Over the past decade, we’ve been supporting Seoul City on their journey towards becoming a socially innovative city. We helped build knowledge around social innovation by connecting local actors to the global field. We enabled a community of social innovators in Seoul to emerge by curating events and hosting workshops to build capacity. We spread out this knowledge and network by helping engage people from all levels of the city with social innovation. We also sit on the Mayor’s social innovation advisory committee. 

Colombia – 2013-2018

In 2013/14, SIX was asked to help respond to the challenges for growing social innovation in Colombia. After an initial delegation visit, and a partnership with SIX through the Global Council, we developed a practical and reflective report, setting out what Colombia needed to focus on to develop social innovation in the country. In 2016, SIX hosted a Summer School with Somos Más in Bogotá on the theme of ‘social innovation in polarised societies’. The country’s social innovation journey has continued since – in 2017, the IDB and MIF announced three social impact bonds in the country, and in 2018, Nesta’s States of Change programme began working with the innovation team in Colombia’s National Department of Planning. 

Istanbul, Turkey (2018) –

By working with business, NGOs, innovation incubators and regional development agencies in two very different cities, SIX helped to catalyse the social innovation ecosystem in Turkey by working closely with local partners through the Summer School and the Wayfinder. The Summer School was focused on innovation tools and methods, whilst the Wayfinder was more forward-looking; exploring how we can create systemic change and have a deeper impact in the next 10 years. 

Social Innovation Generation (SiG) Canada

Social Innovation Generation (SiG) was a coming together of unusual allies — a private family foundation, an innovation hub, a non-profit social enterprise and a public university — around a common cause. Their ultimate goal was to address Canada’s social and ecological challenges by creating a culture of continuous social innovation. Their focus is on social innovation that has the potential for impact, durability and scale. SiG partnered with SIX for the 2014 Summer School in Vancouver, the 2017 Wayfinder event in London, and co-hosted the Wasan Island funder’s retreats in both 2016 and 2017.

Next steps

If you are interested in exploring how to turn this small selection of insights into a collaborative global project, then let us know by emailing us and we’ll organise a follow-up call with you.

Arabic version here