Fernando Sola On Design Sprints For Social Impact


Fernando Sola is one of the directors of Learning by Helping, a lab of creative projects with a social impact.

He is an Industrial Engineer specialised in innovation methodologies and was Director of the EMPREAR incubator (65 startups). He also founded Eclon, a startup dedicated to the first 3D printer in Latin America and also Wolox IoT, a startup specialised in Internet of Things projects.

He is a lecturer at the University of Salamanca in the Master in Social Innovation and Solidarity Economy and in the Professional Certification in Design Thinking.


Fernando discusses the need for all professions to be working on social projects, whilst sharing an observation about a shift in focus for investors and how change brings opportunity.


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

[Nikoline Arns] - Could you please share a bit about your background and the path you took to where you are today?

[Fernando Sola] - My background is related to the entrepreneurial world. I coordinated the startup incubator that you mentioned and there I was able to support different kinds of startups; some startups were social startups, but the majority of the startups were just tech startups. I worked there in Argentina.

Then, when I moved to Spain, I continued working related to the creation of startups, but for big companies. I really like these kinds of jobs. But I felt that I needed to develop social projects. At Learning by Helping, we are three partners. The story of the other partners is very similar to me. Tomy Megna is a very important creative in Argentina. But they also felt that they needed to work in social projects. The same happened with Aymara, the other partner, she's a great designer and she feels that she needed to work on social projects. This is the reason because we started Learning by Helping.

Can you please tell us more about Learning by Helping? What's the organisation's purpose and where do you see it in the next five years? [03:25]

Learning by Helping is a laboratory that creates social impact projects. We create and we teach how to create social impact projects. We created a methodology specialised in creating creative projects with social impact. With this methodology, we have created 30 social impact projects for problems related to different themes like refugees, homelessness, disabilities etc. We have done this in six countries: here in Spain, mostly in Latin America, in Mexico and Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina. So it's a methodology that we improve on each project.


This is really nice and spread out in many countries. Where do you see it heading in five years time? [04:20]

I have no idea where I will be in five years, but I have an idea about Learning by Helping. Perhaps I will be a father? I don't know where I will live, but in Learning by Helping our goal is to create the first Social University of the world. The University, where the graduates will be social architects, social engineers because we think that all professions can be social and the world needs that talent to work in social projects. This is our vision.

I will see you there in 5 years! What is it that you think that makes the Barcelona social enterprise movement unique, and how do you compare it to South America? What can they learn from each other? [05:08]

Well Barcelona is a very connected city for everything. And the social entrepreneurship ecosystem has different players, different important players. That appeared in the last five or ten years. For example, when we work with migration, with work with the Catalan Commission that supports refugees. We work with Singa that is an organisation from France. We work with Chapter Two that supports refugees that want to create startups. We work with refugee-friendly, Abrazo Cultural. All these players are assessed for refugees in each theme. We have different partners. So Barcelona is a very creative hub for social entrepreneurship and in Latin America, well when you haven't got all the resources, creativity and the cooperation appears, so perhaps the Latin American Universities or the accelerators haven’t got the possibilities that the players here in Europe have. But this causes the people to need to collaborate more to be more creative. So there are very interesting projects in Latin America. Today you can be in Latin America, but you work with people from Europe. So in this world, in the social entrepreneurship world, the community is more global than other ecosystems perhaps.

That is good to know. So you feel they’re very connected? [06:55]

Yeah, I'm very positive, too.

You work as a bridge to bring these worlds together as well because you are everywhere. What changes have you seen within the entrepreneurial processes of social enterprise?

The most important change that we see, is each year, more investors are focussed on startups with social impact and incubators and accelerators that are focussed on social impact. They prefer to support startups that have a social impact.

So it's a good moment.


I'm asking you as well because you implement a lot of processes like design thinking and design sprints into the entrepreneurial processes, specific to social enterprise, which is something that sometimes is done in different ways. What advantage do you see? [07:44]

We've taken methodologies from the entrepreneurial world like lean startup, design thinking, business modelling, agile, etc. We take all these tools and methodologies from the creative industry. So we have a mix, and we focus on social projects. One of the things of our methodology, that is the most important, is the social partner. In our methodology, in each step, in each stage, there is a social partner that is mostly a NGO. They give us the opportunity to stay with the people that have the problem, and it's a good way for prototyping and testing. Learning is easier.

So when you start the program, you team up with a social partner that can provide challenges for the people in the project to respond with solutions, or [a partner] that fits with the projects that the people bring into the project. [08:55]

We choose the challenge between the NGO and the team. The students in this case, and the social partner is in all the methodology.

In the beginning, when we explore a problem, that’s when we need to validate our ideas, and when we need to prototype and test the ideas in real life.

Because the ideas on the post-its are always good. But then in real life we need to test them.


When you team up with a social partner, besides being a social entrepreneur yourself with Learning by Helping, you have seen many new social enterprises. What are the common challenges social entrepreneurs face and how can they navigate through them? [09:39]

Well, we are sure that the challenges are the same for any enterprise. So if you want to create a new startup, creating and starting a startup with social impact, and creating a startup without social impact is the same. You will have the same challenge. The thing is, you need to be careful about some things because you are working with problems. So with your solution, work with real problems. It's very important that you work with an NGO; a social partner that I mentioned before, because your impact will be on the people and not on the clients.

I think that social projects are more open to collaboration and cooperation. I think that the thing that I can tell people who want to work in a social project is to collaborate and cooperate with other people, because they are working for a better world.

You have that in common, so it’s easier to connect with others.

We don't believe in competition in this way, because the enemy is not the ‘other’ [organisation]. They want to help the same people that we do.

What do you feel is the role of education in social enterprise in the form of workshops or co-design? [11:22]

Well, I think that all professions must be social, because the world needs this. So the workshops and the courses are okay, but I think that we need a big change in all the stages of education. I think that we need to put in the social, in all the careers, in all the universities and schools.

In one of your workshops that I attended, you emphasised making people aware of where the opportunities are in society to start a social project. Can you explain a little bit about how you do that?

Well, the majority of the opportunities are in change. Every change, for example, a technological change: when the internet suddenly appeared, a lot of internet related startups began, and then a lot of startups began related to smartphones. We think that one of the best ways to look for opportunities is in social change. This is always happening in this world, no? There is a difference in social change. Feminism is a social change, which as a movement is quite old now. But in the last few years, up here, it's on another level. Immigration is another change and climate change. In these areas, you can find different opportunities to work.


What's some inspiring organisations or projects have you come across recently that are creating positive social impact? I'm sure there's many… [13:05]

Yeah, so many. And if I don't say one, they will ask, why didn't you mention ours? Well, for the next course that we will do, we will work with the team of Brai Book. Brai Book is like an e-reader for blind people. We think that it’s a very good example of how technology can really help people; you can democratise books for blind people. The other project that I am a big fan of is Refugee-Friendly. Refugee-Friendly is a project that was born in one of our courses. The student that continued to work on this project really took it to another level. It's a platform that connects refugees and local people. They are in a very good moment.

To finish off, what are some great books you would recommend to our listeners?

There is one that is called, ‘Banker to the Poor’ by Mohammad Yunus and this is a very good book to understand how to implement projects in other cultures.

I recommend different books that aren't from the social impact space, like Sprint and Lean Startup. I think that you can take these tools for social projects. I think that Sprint is one of the best books that has appeared during the last year. The book presents a methodology to resolve problems in a very fast way.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast

Recommended books


You can contact Fernando on LinkedIn. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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