Part 1 What is Social Innovation?
Social innovation can happen in different dimensions. Government maybe the initiator of social innovation, just like Tony Blair, the former British Prime Minister, launched initiatives on “patient capital” to boost patient capital investing on the government level. Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul, South Korea, whose enthusiasm on social innovation is evident, encouraged the effort to build a social innovation center on the policy level, including offering social innovation education in higher education institutes. BottleDream focuses on social innovation on the individual level. Before we start, I would like to show a 3-minute video on the social innovation in our eyes.
In terms of social resources, we think social innovation works its way to activate dormant social resources, making them flow again spontaneously in the whole society. We often use “pyramid” as a metaphor of society, on top of which are the most wealthy, powerful, resource-rich people, followed by the masses, including the vast middle class, on the bottom are the “invisible” people. Social innovation leads resources to flow from up to bottom, not just in the form of donation as in conventional charity, but change from “for the people” to “with the people”. In the following cases, I will show how social innovation empowers people on the bottom of social pyramid, and propel sources to flow from bottom up.
We ask three questions when looking at cases of social innovation. Firstly, what is the social problem this case is addressing? Or is this case based on personal ideal or aspiration? There is a big difference between the former and latter. Secondly, does its solution offer measureable social impact? Innovation is in effect generating a new and effective solution. It’s important to know how to measure its social impact. Every organization, social innovation organization included, should have a regime to measure its social impact. Thirdly, it is ideal if the social innovation model can be adoptable elsewhere. Some social innovation projects is highly reliant on local conditions, thus can not be easily adopted elsewhere.
Part 2 Classical Cases
The first case is an organization called “GoodGym”, formed by a group running enthusiasts or Marathon athletes who think that they can combine night run and doing good in their communities together. Their missions are varied. Mostly, the runners make one-on-one visits to the old people, because it’s estimated that 70% of London’s senior citizen has no regular visits except community workers. By keeping the old people company for a dozen of minutes or half an hour, these night runners form a wonderful, warm relationship with them. Another mission is to competing all sorts of physical tasks in farms of vulnerable groups. Sometimes they go to community library to set up installations or paint the wall. The GoodGym keeps in touch with their communities, which notify them when and where they need help. This program makes use of the habit of runners, who turns this need into a fun game. Financial Times called it “the world’s most innovative Aging projects”. What most inspiring about this program is, sometimes innovation only takes linking one group’s habit into another’s needs in a fun and relaxing way.
Dialogue in the Dark
The second case, Dialogue in the Dark, is a social enterprise that needs no introduction. It started 25 years ago in Hamburg, Germany. Up until now, there have been traveling and permanent exhibitions in more than 170 cities in 38 countries, including Chinese cities like Hong Kong, Chengdu and Shanghai. I interviewed the founder Andreas Heinecke in Hamburg. He had worked a journalist too, and when he worked in a radio station, he found one of his colleagues, who is a blind person, could make better radio program by using his voice and empathy, because radio station is a place where you spread positive energy with voice in the dark. He also found the blind often suffer from marginalization and exclusion, especially in the workplace. So he came up with the idea for the normal people to experience the world of blind people, just like visiting the Disneyland. I visited the exhibitions two times in Beijing and Hamburg respectively. What I personally feel is that you can form an equal relationship with the blind, who act like your guide, leading 10-20 people to walk in the dark and make sense of what they touch, hear and feel.
Besides opening to individuals, they also open their workshop to businesses, as a tool for team building. My group of ten people got the task to form a rope into a square. When your communication is limited to talking or grabbing others’ hands, you will find all the true habits in teamwork are revealed. Most importantly, this model can be reproduced elsewhere and operated completely as a social enterprise. It has provided blind people with more than 8,000 jobs, which are not simple or repetitive work, but ones that fully utilize their experience of living in the dark, empathy and communicative skills. Therefore, I think makes a great case of social enterprises.
I was particularly impressed by the next story I’m going to present, which is about Green Earth, an organization founded by my friend, Wang Jianchao. Born in 1981, he went to University of Science and Technology of China, before working at Microsoft for 8 years as a technical head in charge of more than 100 people. He joined Microsoft, because in his eyes Microsoft changed the world. But one day, when he wanted to make a tiny change at work, it took him surprisingly long time, because Microsoft was already a big and complex organization. So he decided to leave and start “collecting garbage”. He used his IT skills to develop an information management system. Green Earth is actually inspired by an American organization called “Recycle Bank”, which aims to encourage recycling and environmental friendly habits. It advocates, “you are only 10 pounds of trash away from Starbucks.” When people throw recyclable trash into designated places, it rewards people with points that can redeem coupon for theme parks or discount in online shopping, among other things. Green Earth is based in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. When we went there to cover the story, I met Auntie Tian, who showed us her balcony full of trash. Previously she sold these things to private waste recyclers, who often refuse to buy some of the things because they are not profitable. But now Green Earth accepts even plastic toothpaste tubes. Auntie Tian’s daughter and son-in-law and their students, whose communities are not covered by Green Earth haven’t yet, send trash to her house. I can see every text message of reward points she receives, maybe the goods they can redeem are already less important to her than the feeling of achievement and being able to contribute to a better environment.
I also visited Green Earth’s recycling station, which is quite clean. About 90% of what they collect and sort is directly sold to recyclers, a major source of its income. The biggest purchase comes from government, because many governments have environmental commitments to fulfill, but without effective measures. As we all know when we throw trash into government’s classified bins, they are sometimes mixed back together into trucks for landfill. So the governments want to partner up with third-party organizations who can do this more effectively. Up to now, Green Earth has covered 200 communities, 100,000 people in Jinjiang District, which amounts to great measurable social impact.
Golden Sun Home-Based Elderly Care
I was personally touched by the next case, “Golden Sun” elderly care, a nursing home without walls. The founder Huang Xiaorong, who has been running a large-scale housekeeping company for more than 20 years, is concerned with China’s aging problem. In 2014, there were 200 million people older than 60, and by 2015, the number will reach 437 million. However, she found out that in China, the occupancy rate in nursing homes was less than 10%. Faced with these baffling numbers, she determined to learn about the true demand of Chinese pensioners. In traditional values, old people want to be surrounded by their children and grand children, and going to nursing home is seen as a miserable last resort.
On the other hand, though, rapid urbanization and people, me included, are migrating increasingly to big cities in search of better jobs, leaving their old parents back in hometown. Golden Sun’s service model is built on a hotline 962285. When someone calls the hotline, it firstly contacts emergency medical service, then contacts the direct relatives of the caller, then send volunteer paramedics from a 24 hour service station. The volunteers will come to the caller’s home, escort the elderly to hospital with emergency aid staff, and report to the elderly’s family members in time. In non-emergency cases, Golden Sun provides all the service of a professional nursing home, including medical care, cooking, washing clothes, accompanying the old people to banks and other errands.
So how does it manage the volunteers? It offers each volunteer with a “time deposit” account, in which a volunteer’ working hour are saved for redeeming later, when his/her parents needs voluntary service. I think this is a great way of mobilizing social resources. Everyone has parents and kids, so it’s a very good exchange scheme.
The founder Huang Xiaorong wants to make Golden Sun the first Chinese social enterprise to go public. Currently, it has already won 20 million investment and big deal of government procurement, even it’s office space is offered by the Fuzhou municipal government. Just like Green Earth, it has found a unique niche by solving the headache of government, other cities’ government, such as Lanzhou, came to learn from her, because her model can be reproduced elsewhere.
One other interesting thing is, she found many possibilities of expanding her business along the way, because there are many links in senior service. For example, it can cooperate with laundry shops for washing clothes, and offer deposit or insurances. She also found some high-end groups start to buy the service coupons as gifts for their friends, which are more considerate than tangible goods.
The last story I want to share is Airbnb, which is a service that many of us might have used. I think it’s worth sharing because it offers the lens through which we see sharing-economy. Airbnb is essentially an online marketplace, enabling people to lease or rent short-term lodging. For example, when I traveled in Europe, instead of living in hotel, I was more inclined to staying in an interesting person’s home. On the surface, it does not address any social issue, but on a closer look, you’ll find it does solve a social problem. Many people have unoccupied rooms in their house. When you rent it out, you’re actually sharing your living experience and the unique local atmosphere, which is a desirable resource for strangers. By offering lodgings in 34,000 cities of 190 countries, it achieved great commercial success by raising more than $ 1 billion venture funding this year, making the value of the company $20 billion. We in OneSpace bookshop once invited 7 travel writers to live into their favorite writers’ former residences. You will find that there is a lot to be explored in a good case.
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