The European Social Innovation Competition & How It Is Supporting Innovators Achieve Social Impact


Launched by the European Commission in 2013; the European Social Innovation Competition is a beacon for social innovation in Europe; utilising a proven methodology for supporting early-stage ideas and facilitating a network of radical innovators shaping society for the better.

We speak to two of the 2018 winners of the competition about their initiatives, as well as one of the competition organisers to learn about the 2019 edition.


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

[Gary Fawdrey] - First up is Janet Southern McCormick who is a Program Manager at Nesta’s Challenge Prize Center in London, UK.

Janet, thanks so much for joining us today. To kick things off. What is the European Social Innovation Competition?

[Janet Southern McCormick] - The European Social Innovation Competition is led by Nesta and includes partners: Kennisland, Ashoka Spain, the European Network of Living Labs and Scholz & Friends. It was launched in memory of Diogo Vasconcellos, a Portuguese leader, who focused on fostering innovation to address some of the great societal challenges of our time. The competition aims to promote social innovation across Europe.

It's all about supporting new ideas, whether they come from established teams that are trying something new or individuals who may be starting a project for the very first time.

Every year there is a dedicated theme and this will focus on a societal challenge that requires fresh thinking to create new solutions.

[Gary] - Fantastic. So how exactly does it work? [02:15]

[Janet] - Well, across the EU and Horizon 2020 Associated Countries, anyone who has an idea that aligns to the competition's theme can submit an application and that's what makes the competition inclusive. All applications that are eligible are reviewed by our panel of expert judges who select the top scoring 30 applications to be semi-finalists. So over the following months, the semi-finalists access various components of the support package we provide. This includes everything from exclusive webinars to one-to-one coaching workshops and it culminates in a residential social innovation academy. After the academy we ask projects to submit a detailed development plan and this really further builds out their idea. These plans are submitted to our expert judges again and they review those against the evaluation criteria and select 10 top scoring projects to be finalists. And of these finalists, three winners are selected to each receive 50,000 Euros to help develop their ideas further. We officially announce the winners at an award ceremony in Brussels every year.

[Gary] - Great. So how did the competition go in 2018? [03:25]

[Janet] - Well, in 2018 the theme was Re:Think Local and that was all about finding the most innovative projects that empower young people to participate fully in a changing economy. We are living in a globalised world and as cities grow larger. We know that we're receiving many benefits, but there is a definite flip side. Often community suffers, employment solutions favour mobility and communities can actually suffer the brain drain effect.

So therefore, what we need is employment solutions that allow people to stay in their communities and respond to community needs to really grow and thrive at an individual level, rather than moving on to urban centres that are already saturated, leaving some communities effectively left behind.

In terms of the actual running of last year's competition, we launched that in Paris, France in February of 2018 and in July we held our residential social innovation academy in Cluj, Romania. Our final event of the year was the award ceremony and that was hosted in Brussels, Belgium. We had three great projects winning the 2018 competition, Re:Think Local and these were HeritageLab from Slovenia, Career Bus from Romania and Ulisse from Italy.


[Gary Fawdrey] - Fantastic. We're now going to speak to Armina Sirbu from the Career Bus team based in Romania. Career Bus were one of three 2018 winners of the competition. To kick things off, could you please tell us about the issue you are trying to tackle? [04:45]

[Armina Sirbu] - Our project is related to career orientation for young people. In Romania career councillors currently have about 800 students to meet during the school year. Many people don't have any idea what professions suit them or what professions they would like to have. So what we are trying to do with this project is to reach the smaller cities and the villages where 13 to 19 year olds have never heard of having other options other than what they saw in their family or their neighbours, to help them understand that out there is a big world and there are many professions that they could have if they develop the right skills.

[Gary] - So could you tell us about Career Bus and why you've settled on this approach? [06:01]

[Armina] - Career Bus is done by two NGO’s. We have had pilots on where we go to these rural communities and smaller cities and have an intervention and noticed that this helps people very much. Even though it's not necessarily cost effective, it's more helpful than asking them to come to a location. So for example, we could have organised a museum or multimedia interactive room and bring people there, but that would be less effective. So we call this project Career Bus because we take the bus to go to these rural locations and deliver career orientation workshops. It is a half day workshop that includes a board game and augmented reality applications through which young people can experience different professions. The hope is that after a half day with us, they would be more able to ask the right questions to their career counsellors, their teachers or their parents so that they get to choose the career option that best suits them. This is a real issue in Romania. About 70% of people over 20 have realised that they chose a profession that doesn't suit them and they're actually having to work in a sector totally different from what their education was.

[Gary] - Okay, fantastic. Could you share a little about your experiences on the European Social Innovation Competition and how it helped you and the project? [07:50]

[Armina] - Yes, it was very helpful because in Romania most of the NGO’s are used to finding a way to support their projects financially via a grant. During the competition we actually found out that we could create a social impact project as a business. So basically in Romania right now, the concept of social innovation or social entrepreneurship is very, very little known. You're either an NGO that is based on sponsorships and grants or you are a company. So during the competition we learned how we could actually have a social impact and still make a profit so that we could be self sufficient. I think this was the biggest aha moment.


[Gary] - Okay, great. What are your plans for the future of Career Bus, including using prize money that you got from the competition? [09:25]

[Armina] - Yeah, we actually started the project today, with the first official workshop! We've designed a career advice board game and we are really happy about it. We've tested it in the previous weeks and improved it. Today we used it with two groups, one of 13 year olds and one of 15 year olds. Our goal was to reach 300 young people this year and I think that we can go for double. We’ve been approached by companies who are interested in the game. The first impression is that everything is moving very fast and people are really open to our idea. I think that the communication at European level from the competition helped a lot in the media during the previous months. So I think that this school year, which ends in June, is going to be full of work and we are probably going to overpass the goals that were in our development plan.

[Gary Fawdrey] - Amazing. That sounds very exciting. Thank you.

We're now going to speak to Matevž Straus from HeritageLab in Slovenia, another 2018 winner. To kick things off, could you please tell us about the issue that you're trying to tackle? [11:13]

[Matevž Straus] - The whole thing emerged in Idrija. Idrija is a really small place, 6000 people. It is a former mining town but the mine closed down. The town found a way out because the automotive industry developed here. And now the town is quite important in regards to industry. The heritage here is quite well preserved. Us, the young generation, saw that if you don’t study something related to industry, you have to leave to find a job. All the heritage that is a around us, does not offer much employment opportunities. 5 years ago, a group of students started an association which wanted to create some new opportunities within the heritage sector for young people and look at heritage in a different way. We have been working in this since then, but in an unstructured way, with no big plan. It was just a bunch of guys trying to improve something in the local community and this is how we got to where we are at the moment, or at least where we were last year before we applied to the European Social Innovation Competition

[Gary] - Okay, fantastic. That led you to start HeritageLab. Could you please explain the project and what you're trying to do? [13:14]

[Matevž] - Just like the competition wanted, we were trying to Re:Think Local. This is what we had been doing for the past 5 years, but now we imagined what would happen if we did it with more structure, in a more professional way, with clearer goals. This is how HeritageLab emerged. An incubator to help young people, like us, to identify new opportunities within the heritage sector and develop them into business ideas. Strangely there are not many incubators that work in cultural heritage, as it is a bit of a rigid sector that scares entrepreneurs from entering it. We wanted to change this with HeritageLab.

After we won the European Social Innovation Competition, we got a lot of positive feedback and motivation to work on this project, because before the competition, it was just a concept. In the weeks after the award ceremony, we were thinking how to implement it, we connected with Arctur, which is a high performance computing company from Slovenia, that also had the same ambition to enter the cultural heritage sector and create new opportunities to rethink cultural heritage using the digital solutions. Last month in January, we agreed how we were proceeding. So in January we agreed how we are proceeding, and HeritageLab is now a cooperation with an IT company which will help with scaling the idea. We are now in the processes of collecting proposals for the incubator and gathering the business mentors and heritage experts that will help the young people in developing their ideas.

[Gary] - Fantastic. And could you explain exactly what you mean by heritage? [16:00]

[Matevž] - Actually for us in Idrija cultural heritage is basically everything that is around us. So it’s what we eat, how we spend our free time, it is a part of our life and identity. What is interesting about cultural heritage is that of course it is unique anywhere you go.

[Gary] - Brilliant, thank you. And could you tell us a little about your experience on the European Social Innovation Competition and what you learned from it?

[Matevž] - A special benefit was the mentor we had, who guided us with our development plan, and also meeting other entrepreneurs and social innovators was a very valuable experience. On one hand we saw what our competition is doing, but on the other hand, we got inspired because we saw from how many different angles people are addressing the same issue of rethinking local communities, using local assets to create opportunities for young people.

[Gary] - Brilliant. Thank you. Finally, could you share what your hopes or plans are for the future of HeritageLab? [17:31]

[Matevž] - So at the moment we are working on two different levels. One is the local level of Idrija. We are in the process of launching the mentorship programme. While the other level is more meta, and is where we are working with Arctur, the IT company, on establishing an ecosystem of digital tools and skill sets that are needed for cultural heritage to embrace innovation. When we talk about bringing heritage products to new markets we are talking about Tourism 4.0 which is an initiative led by Arctur, and a consortium of Slovenian companies and universities that aims to bring the idea of the internet of things and Industry 4.0 into the tourism sector. We are leading on the research for the project at the moment and we are researching how to bring new technologies into the tourism sector.

We see lots of potential connections between cultural heritage and sustainable tourism.

[Gary Fawdrey] - Brilliant. Thank you. So we just heard about the 2018 edition of the competition and now I'm back with Janet from Nesta to talk about 2019. So Janet, what are the plans for this year? [19:16]

[Janet Southern McCormick] - Well, it's very exciting. The 2019 competition launched on the 20th of February in Ljubljana, Slovenia and we were actually really lucky to have HeritageLab attend and they shared a little bit of insight in terms of their experience on the European Social Innovation Competition at the event. We also officially launched the 2019 theme, which I'm very happy to announce is Challenging Plastic Waste.

We're looking for the most innovative projects, products, services, business models, or collaborations that tackle plastic waste.

[Gary] - So if some of our listeners are sitting at home and they've got an idea about how we can reduce the level of plastic waste in our society, what do they do? How do they apply?

[Janet] - Well, if you do have an idea and you're interested in applying to the competition, please go to our website. The deadline for applications is the 4th of April.

[Gary] - That's very exciting. Janet, thank you so much for joining us today. The European Social Innovation Competition is funded by the European Commission. Anyone aged 18 and above who is based in an EU Member State or Horizon 2020 Associated Country can enter. Entries are assessed based on their potential innovation, impact, sustainability, and scale.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast


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