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How to make social innovations fly

The SIX Nordic network met in Helsinki to find out what the future holds for social innovations.


Elina Kiiski Kataja


What does the future hold for social innovations and how can we make them fly? Read from our Foresight Specialist Elina Kiiski Kataja on our research team’s blog Weekly notes.

The SIX Nordic network met in Helsinki at the end of September. SIX (for Social Innovation Exchange) Nordic is an open network consisting of people and organisations who work with social innovations. It is part of SIX Global, a global initiative based on the same idea. The get-together led to inspiring conversations, the exchange of best practices, new connections and partners, among many other things. The topic of this workshop was the future of social innovations and how to scale them up. What does it require to make your social innovation fly?

We didn’t spend time thinking about the semantics or definition of what makes a social innovation, instead we introduced our backgrounds and the topics that accompany them. I would like to share some inspiring examples that give an idea of what social innovation can be all about. There was Anne, who is working with Danish organisations that help traditional social work organisations to improve their ideas and bring in innovative thinking when applying for funding. There was Antonio, who has a strong corporate management background and is helping non-profit organisations to become “for-benefit” organisations, using professional ways of fundraising and the assets non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have. There was Merete, who is using social experimenting and storytelling as a method of communication with groups who do not get their voices heard. There was Tuula, who is working with Finnish municipalities to help them renew and innovate their services to better respond to customer needs. There was Karim, who is developing a platform for non-governmental organisations’ web presence in order to serve their members and future members better. And so many others!

Ask the right questions

There were a few themes that were repeated during the day. One big conversation we had was about the effectiveness and measurement of the results of new social initiatives. How do we measure them? How much could we, and should we, use corporate methods? How can we measure human empowerment, its value and experience? What incentives do our projects offer when navigating a complex environment? Do we know what we are trying to achieve? These questions cannot be answered immediately when thinking about social innovations and their measurement, but everyone working with social innovations can start by asking these questions for her- or himself when getting started, and looking for answers in the context of each case.

Another interesting discussion centred around the ideas of non-profit organisations transforming themselves into “for-benefit” concerns. This is a new way of thinking that many Nordic organisations are facing because of the scarcity of traditional money flows. “For-benefit” means that the organisation makes a profit but uses it to benefit their non-profit work. A lot could be learned from the corporate world without sacrificing ideals in order to use the profit made to develop a cause. What products can non-profits sell? Expertise on the issue they work with, for example. In addition, many NGOs sit on massive amounts of data that might be used for the purposes of commercialisation or for the bettering of their services. Smart partnering with corporations and the internal start-up culture might help organisations with strong ideals to reach their goals.

Know who you are working for

When designing social innovations, you should never forget for whom you are working. Understand the problem that needs solving. Know your users and clients and understand their needs. Co-create with them. Make it lean and be ready to keep on trying if your first, second or even third way of doing things doesn’t work. Find the right team and work with the best people. That can be done if you believe in your value and your innovation. Very often people working with social causes tend to forget their value and the great things they are creating. Bring the pride in!

We also discussed how important it is to remember that when speaking about social innovations we are very often talking about politics as well. When radical disruptive innovations take place, there is always a political battleground looming. How do we deal with that? Scaling up happens very often through political partnering and initiatives. On the other hand, the global trend also shows that there are more and more people of the new generation who maintain a strong social purpose when creating successful businesses. One side of this coin may be social impact bonds or impact investing, where the idea of the common good and the aims of the investors meet.

In summary, I feel the Nordic countries are an excellent reference group for each other in the field of social innovations, since our societies are very similar. At the same time their diversity and different perspectives serve as sources of inspiration. SIX Nordic is open for anyone who is interested; welcome aboard!

The Weekly notes summarise topical issues from Sitra’s strategy and research team. Our Weekly Notes are gathered together here.

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