Tessa de Geus On Social Impact Strategies & Assessment For Civil Society Initiatives


As a social innovation advisor and researcher at Kennisland, Tessa de Geus focuses on assessing the social impact of civil society initiatives and on elaborating strategies for supporting such projects.

Her interest in subterranean politics and how these powers relate to established structures is the starting point for her work.

She currently works on the European Social Innovation Competition, the iCapital challenge and Open Government in Practice. Tessa was also part of the team behind the Challenge City of the Future, the Dutch Radical Innovators, research on developing resilient water governance in Amsterdam and a municipal learning network on open data. Read more about her background here.


Tessa shares her international experience, discussing a range of social innovation initiatives, providing insights into civil society projects and useful methodologies and tools.


Highlights from the podcast (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background in social innovation and what led you to working in your current role at Kennisland? [2:42]

[Tessa de Geus] - I never really aspired to work in social innovation because it's such a broad term that's hard to grasp. My background lies in anthropology and political science. I've always been driven by this urge to understand people's lives and step into their shoes and on the other hand understand larger global phenomena such as inequality and sustainability and how they affect people's lives on the ground. That kind of different combination of different scale levels drove me towards social innovation, city-makers and civil society who are trying to work on global issues on a local level.

What does Kennisland mean, what do you guys do as a think tank and what are it’s origins? [3:40]

Roughly translated, Kennisland means something like 'smarter societies'. We were founded in 1999 as a way to establish the Netherlands as a knowledge economy. [She explains in detail.] I think we can say that we're pretty established as a knowledge economy now. As an organisation we've gone to reevaluate what knowledge means, how power and knowledge relates and who has the ability to say something who is acknowledged as being knowledgable. So that's how we developed over the years.

As a think tank, how is Kennisland funded? [4:40]

We're run as a social business. I think I can say that because we don't have any structural funding, which allows us to be independent and we're not for profit. We do different projects with governments ranging from the EU to municipal level. Sometimes we also work with companies like Google or Apple depending on what goal we want to accomplish and who the best partners are to work with.

Kennisland Social Labs

Kennisland Social Labs

Could you please tell us more about the current projects that you’re working on and what are the specific objectives of each one? [5:19]

Kennisland works on quite a wide range of topics ranging from education, the government, cultural sector, copyright, access to knowledge aspects, cross-cultural heritage and then social innovation.

My work focusses on building capacity with civil society and government professionals to collaborate more and to allow the knowledge of people in the city to be used for a more just and sustainable society

I'm currently working on the European Social Innovation Competition with the European Commission, Nesta and some other partners such as the Impact Hub. We're hosting a call for people to submit their projects. Last year the theme was integrated futures and we discussed the newcomers in Europe and how we can best include them in society. This year the theme is inequality and we're inviting people to submit their ideas for a more equal society. We offer them prize money and an academy and coaching to ensure they can further develop their projects.

What I do also like in other projects is where you also get to collaborate with parties in the environment of the city makers so as to not only make social innovation something that civil society should do but also something that the government should do. That's what we're working on in Amsterdam right now. Amsterdam won the iCapital Award (the Innovation Capital of Europe) and we're now working with the municipality and other partners to create a program in which we work on the collaboration between civil society and the municipality.

What processes, tools and methodologies are you using throughout your projects and which ones would you recommend to other social innovation advisors working in this field? [8:05]

Something that Kennisland is really known for is the Feed Forward methodology that my colleague Marlieke Kieboom developed with other colleagues too. To call it the 'holy grail' is probably a bit much, but it's really something that I know has helped a lot of other people in guiding social innovation processes. That methodology is focussed on collecting stories from people in your project (we use it a lot in our social labs) to first define the issue that they think is most pressing in their neighbourhood and then with them and other stakeholders collect those stories and see what motives there are. Eventually we see what prototypes can be developed to address the issue.

We came to the conclusion that qualitative research and more anthropological methods of collecting stories are really needed in this time when often quantitative analysis pushes away the human story and gives a very one dimensional image of the issue.

The Kennisland website states that Civil society is a contentious subject but that it can be considered to be the grey area between the government and the private sector, where communities of citizens are linked by common interests and collective activity. What do you believe are the biggest challenges when assessing the social impact of civil society initiatives? [9:56]

It is contentious because there are a lot of different definitions. You can either look at assessing the impact or to the initiatives themselves obviously. If you look at the biggest challenges now, I would say there is a bit of a threat to us as the civil society sector to sometimes consider ourselves a bit too apolitical and too ahistorical and not really embed ourselves in a bigger movement to have systemic impact. That's something that we as an organisation are also considering because we've seen a lot of really great, brilliant examples in our environment, and everyone's really raving about them but when push comes to shove, there's no way to make it sustainable because no one really wants that systemic change to actually happen. So...

how can we make sure social innovation and civil society is less dispersed and more embedded in a bigger movement; especially considering the issues that we're facing today?

Oxfam just published that 8 wealthy men have as much wealth as half the world population.

Now with social innovation we're really maturing and I think that we should become more political and embedded historical in referring to other movements in the past.

As to the challenges, when it comes to assessing their impact, something that I see is that there is a lot of impact measurement tools coming up, also from the government side which is great because they need to be accountable and show what they spend their money on, but it's still very hard to go beyond the economic benefit that social innovation initiatives produce. So to really give value to the things that are not easy to quantify is the dilemma that the entire sector in the Netherlands is struggling with.

European Social Innovation Awards

European Social Innovation Awards

How have you seen the approach to social innovation shift and where do you see it heading? [13:01]

I'm very pleased to see governments in the European Union are very eager to focus on social innovation. In the Horizon 2020 programs there was a lot of focus on social innovation. I feel like it is being adopted by big institutions. The way it is adopted is sometimes a bit contentious because often it is also considered as a way to increase the productivity of a country and see it from an economic perspective. [Tessa discusses this in more detail.] 

How were you involved in working for the United Nations Development Programme in New York and what were the key learnings you took from that experience? [14:09]

I interned at the Civil Society team at the UNDP. I was pulled towards working for a global institution working with a locally based civil society base.

What I remember really well is that the civil society input rounds were always from 8-8:55am. And then people (government representatives) would come in at 9:05am and be like, "who are these people?" It was more of a formality - all these input groups. It's great that it's there but...

a key learning is that you need to embed the collaboration with civil society early on in the process.

If country leaders have it in their DNA and working processes to work with their communities and civil society, that's much more useful than having a civil society base at the UN that is very skewed because only big, wealthy organisations that can afford to be there are represented most of the time. That was a key learning for me to really go back and study and learn how from a city level you can develop a strategy on integrating civil society and citizens into the decision making process.

You’ve co-authored a number of articles on smart cities, open data and ‘city makers’. In your article titled ‘Who owns the smart city?’, what did your research discover? [16:08]

What I argued is that what I see in the smart city is a repetition of something that has happened very often in modernist architecture. This is basically that there a lot of decisions being made in setting up the whole concept that are not democratic or accountable.

I am very critical of the term and was a bit frustrated because one case study we used in that article was a smart lighting program in Eindhoven. It was really hailed as a perfect smart city project, but here we were asking these questions like, "why do you want this lighting in the first place and who is it going to benefit?" You need all these considerations before being able to say something is a success. While they were like, "this is a great success and we even had all these meetings with communities." Whilst the people going to those meetings were digitally savvy yuppees most of the time. That was really our starting point for talking about the argument that Anthony Townsend also has really elaborately discussed to see if you're going to make these decisions in smart cities, who are they going to benefit?

Do you want to serve the middle class consumer who can get to work faster or do you really want to solve the tough issues in the city?

More and more it's based on algorithms and data collection which is accountable for the results of those calculations. I'm personally unsure if I want to keep on engaging with the term (smart city), because you can say that 'smart city' also is very inclusive and wants to be democratic, but I see it as a term that's been hijacked by big companies that are making a lot of money off it and hopefully ensuring that profit in the future by very savvy contracts.

I think it's important to be critical of it but on the other hand I don't know whether to reject it or say, "wait guys, social innovation is part of the smart city!"

European Social Innovation Awards

European Social Innovation Awards

Are their any particular countries internationally beyond the Netherlands that you believe are leading the charge when it comes to social innovation and what are these countries doing well that others can learn from? [19:06]

I think it really depends on the sector and whether it's the government taking the lead or citizens. If you look at Nordic countries which are going to start these big experiments with basic income etc. I'd definitely say that that's really impressive and they're really in the lead there (they're also looking at shorter working days and how that affects health etc.) I think governments are being quite progressive there.

I was in Berlin for the European Social Innovation Competition last year. I was really amazed by everything that was happening when it comes to social innovation newcomers. Those initiatives aren't close knit to the government and are operating by themselves out of need. I really admire Berlin and the scene around newcomers and things that are popping up such as the Migration Hub. 

Tessa could you please recommend three great social innovation books or resources for our listeners? [20:57]

[Tessa talks us through the books listed below.]

European Social Innovation Awards

European Social Innovation Awards


You can contact Tessa on Linkedin or twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

Read more articles on social innovation.