Journey of Social Innovation in Asia

The What Works project team, along with our colleagues from the Young Foundation, were in Seoul a few weeks ago participating in the Asia NGO Innovation Summit (ANIS) 2012.

ANIS is a platform for social innovators in Asia to exchange their ideas, experiences, skills and best practices of social innovation. The theme of this year’s ANIS was ‘collaboration across different sectors’ and true to its theme, the event was organised by organisations representing the three sectors: The Hope Institute coming from the social sector, Intel from the private sector and Seoul Development Institute, representing the public sector.

At ANIS, we were all inspired by the remarkable stories of social innovation and the people behind the social change. We were struck by the sense of optimism, entrepreneurialism and energy emanating from Asia with the emergence of new opportunities and types of agency, as well as the overwhelming scale and pace of change, and the urgency of new social, economic and environmental challenges and needs.

Festeza performing at ANIS *
© The Hope Institute

Here are some reflections from the Young Foundation delegation.

So Jung Rim, Researcher on the What Works? Project:

“What fascinated me was the language of social innovation in Asia. There’s something very poetic and exciting about the language that people use. Perhaps the language of technological innovation did not suffice to bring inspiration for social innovation and people had to look for alternative words to describe new ways of engaging. Unlike the language of advocacy campaigns and democracy struggles of the 80s, social innovation language is much more hopeful, energetic and self-reflective. Shifting away from the language of criticism and struggle, the new language of social innovation lets people imagine and create a positive collaborative future.

The Thought Collective plays with the word “thought” to brand their multiple social organisations –  School of Thought, Food for Thought, Think Tank, Thinkscape… Embedded in the word “thought” is their method of looking inward for change, and their passion for building the social and emotional capital of the youth in Singapore.

The language Gawad Kalinga uses is also deeply self-reflective and poetic. The uses of phrases like “social justice”, “land for the landless, homes for the homeless”,  “social artistry”, “enchanted farm” and ideas like “big brother”, “middle brother”, and “small brother” have helped the Gawad Kalinga brand become accessible and dynamic.

Sunit Shrestha from the Change Fusion talked of “The Light of Darkness” during his presentation at ANIS, focussing on the extraordinary collective action of citizens following the Tsunami disaster last year. He emphasised that social innovation lies in the ordinary lives of people, in their own narratives of constructing identities, movements and solutions in the face of deep social challenges.

The Hope Institute uses the theme of hope. The Hope Institute was founded by Wonsoon Park, a former civil society leader now turned mayor of Seoul, at a point when the Korean society was ready for active citizen participation and empowerment. Mr. Park would always emphasise that hope is not something illusive or imaginary. It lies within all of us. ‘Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.’ – Lin Yutang”

Lauren Kahn, lead on the What Works? Project, says:

“For me, the key message from ANIS was that social innovation does not happen in isolation; we need all sectors involved. Some compelling ideas that surfaced:

  • People power! It’s not all about formal organisations and institutions. I was overwhelmed by stories demonstrating the important role that citizen agency is playing in driving social innovation in Asia. As Anjan Ghosh of Intel emphasised “Beautiful people, beautiful cooperation is at the heart of social innovation movement in Asia”. And, how IT is creating a new model of cooperation: in the words of Mayor Park (who raised 3.9 billion won, equivalent of 3.3 million USD within 52 hours through crowdfunding) “we can change our world with Twitter.”
  • While technologies are important in building bridges and connections, a key step for advancing cross sector collaboration in social innovation is building trust. Governments worry people don’t trust them. But they need to first start trusting people – and shift from governing ‘to’, to governing ‘with’ people.
  • Next, a message for the private sector – to tackle the growing social challenges of our time, today and in future, corporates will need to show strategic leadership – move beyond Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to Corporate Social Innovation (CSI).
  • Finally – we need reflection time and space for social innovation. Creativity can stagnate if it’s all ‘go go go’ and we don’t take time out.

ANIS provided just the space for dialogue and reflection, and creativity to permeate– and left us all charged up to get down to the work of making social innovation happen!”

Louise Pulford, Head of the Social Innovation Exchange, says:

“I spend a lot of my time thinking about networks. How do you start to create a community of people from different countries who share similar challenges and who can work together effectively and What is the best way to transfer ideas across borders? And ANIS conference made me think about this even more. As well as being an extremely well organised, engaging and interesting event, ANIS demonstrated the richness of examples of fantastic people and projects across the Asia –  from the dozens of examples that the What works team introduced, to the Community Museum Project in Hong Kong, to the fantastic work of Change Fusion in Thailand.

But how do these people keep in contact and keep learning and sharing between ANIS conferences? This was one of the concluding questions from our wonderful hosts, the Hope Institute. For me the only reason I go to events is to meet people, people who I can keep in contact with after the event. Many of the other participants at ANIS were clearly thinking this too. The week before ANIS, we launched the first regional cluster of SIX – SIX  Asia – in Hong Kong. This cluster will remain part of the global SIX network, but provide an identity and platform for SIX members in the region.

It seems the perfect time for SIX Asia and existing communities to link to the ANIS community so we can really accelerate the process of learning and sharing of social innovations all over the world. We are looking forward to working together and keeping these discussions going.”

Ginny Lee, Associate on the What Works? project, says:

“In Asia, it was great to see that people were innovating out of necessity, but also learning and replicating best practice and projects from the West and adapting it to the local contexts. Countries like Korea, Thailand, India, Singapore, Australia and so many others look up to and look towards the UK and the West for inspiration. The Office of the Third Sector (now Office for Civil society), UnLtd, Big Society Bank, the cooperative model in the UK and so many organisations and ideas that we take for granted in the UK are being replicated and adapted to take the different Asian contexts into consideration.

The West is viewed as the thought-leader many aspects including social innovation. The West has been espousing ‘social innovation’ for some time, and a lot of money has gone in to develop incubators, hubs, social innovation spaces, social enterprise challenges, and so much more. Yet, the question that people within the social innovation space in the West is asking is – so, after all this hype, what has social innovation actually achieved? Where is the proof and impact?

We need to realise that in the West, our ideas are good, our projects and organisations are doing well but as pioneers it is difficult to know and understand impact until you remove yourself from the context and see the work that we’re doing from a different perspective. Maybe we should all take a trip out to Asia and how we’ve been inspiring others to make a positive change.”

Vicki Sellick, Programme Lead at the Young Foundation, says:

“I am always struck by the reviving power of a good conversation. You can be wondering how to solve a problem back at base, in need of a little inspiration or a bit of perspective, and an unexpected conversation at a conference can be just the remedy. ANIS was full of such conversations for me. I pondered how best to train NGOs in innovation skills with the Lien Centre for Social Innovation in Singapore, re-imagined education with the Thought Collective and was inspired by the Thai authorities free healthcare system funded by duty on cigarettes and alcohol. I came back with plenty more contacts and a whole host of ideas to implement here in the UK or through our Global Innovation Academy.”

Carmel O’Sullivan, Research Associate at the Young Foundation, says:

“There were many very informative and interesting sessions but the poster session was really stand out. It was a fantastic platform for social innovators themselves. It was so interesting for me to hear social innovation stories from Asia and to give those who are working on the ground to share their insight and ideas with everyone. This session was so full of energy and inspiration.

I think there was a good cross section of participants. It was great that there were so many social innovators. It was also interesting that an organisation like Intel and government sector represented through Seoul city government.  There were so many interesting conversations!

Going forward with ANIS I think it will be important to keep our finger on the pulse by inviting interesting social innovators working on the ground. It is important to create this kind of networking opportunities.”

* We had the privilege of seeing Festeza (a youth percussion group) perform on the first day of ANIS. Festeza is a cultural/social project led by young people which emerged from the alternative learning programmes of Haja Centre.

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