When inertia is not sustainable: facilitating social innovation in Barcelona


With increasing social demands and decreasing resources to respond to them, social innovation is much more than a buzzword in Barcelona. Over the last 12 months, UpSocial has been working in partnership with the City of Barcelona and Citymart.com to (a) identify the best proven innovations capable of responding more effectively or efficiently to critical social problems; and (b) facilitate their successful implementation locally.

The idea

Social innovation does not circulate as quickly and nimbly as market-led innovation. The incentives seem to be missing. This is why social innovation (defined as a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole) rarely surpasses the borders of the initial project. “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere. The challenge of the 21st Century is to find out what works and scale it up”, said Bill Clinton.

With this idea in mind, and inspired by the work of Ashoka’s ChangeNation in Ireland, UpSocial designed a methodology to respond to critical social challenges through the best proven innovations. Citymart.com played a key role in its design and in researching solutions. Actually, UpSocial used its platform to discover innovations and engage a multisectorial jury to evaluate them and select the most appropriate.

The response

This initiative, titled Social Innovation for Communities (SIC), started with the City of Barcelona and the government of Catalonia identifying four social challenges that required innovation: (a) short and long term solutions for youth unemployment; (b) opportunities for single-parented families in risk of social exclusion; (c) increasing the employability of people with disabilities; and (d) improving the environmental impact of mass tourism in Barcelona. A call for solutions was issued through CityMart and over 400 solutions were initially identified in 8 weeks.

A selection was made to present 25 solutions per challenge to a jury. The selection was based on the following criteria:

  • Evidence of impact: The existence of evidence of impact to make sure the innovation has been successfully implemented.
  • Scale: scale of implementation of the innovation, to understand whether it has been packaged in a way that replication is feasible.
  • Income: The sustainability model is consolidated, so that the model can be implemented efficiently.
  • Low barriers to entry: no major obstacles are found for implementation, such as major investment needs or legal reforms.

The jury of each challenge selected 3 to 5 innovations and the winning innovators were invited to Barcelona to meet with potential investors, replicators, and key stakeholders interested in replicating/implementing their model. Public events were also organised to present the innovations and generate debate about current practices implemented to resolve social problems.

Preliminary results

It is early to make a proper evaluation of the impact this whole process has had to date.  Impact will be measured against the outcomes generated by the new solutions implemented. However, an indicator provides with a promising result: of the 12 innovations brought to Barcelona, 6 are currently being implemented and 3 are negotiating partnerships to adapt their model locally. The development of a better ecosystem for social innovation is also emerging as a positive outcome. Social innovators have appreciated the value of being confronted with different expansion models and the support they received in designing a light but effective outreach strategy to international expansion.

Lessons learnt

This first year of implementation has helped UpSocial draw some conclusions about promoting and implementing social innovation effectively:

  • Social R&D must be a top priority: as social needs increase and become more complex, the potential results of investing in R&D become more evident. This means researching sustainability models to resolve social problems, reviewing the means and goals, bringing together problems and challenges to find disruptive solutions, etc.
  • Importing social innovation requires the participation of the innovator to capture the learnings, accelerate implementation and increase the possibilities of success, as well as the engagement of local actors capable of adapting and replicating the innovation. The two parts are necessary.
  • Social entrepreneurs and social enterprises do not usually have consolidated and well-defined expansion and replication models. There is a need to support successful social entrepreneurs in designing efficient models, usually requiring little support from “headquarters”.
  • There is a great potential in finding new business models to resolve social problems. There are also very interesting innovations in management that allow traditionally small-scale solutions to reach out much larger groups.
  • Citymart.com is an efficient and effective marketplace for innovation, and it works also with social innovation. Its transparent process, the capacity to identify solutions globally and the way it manages knowledge and information is extremely valuable.

For further details on UpSocial and this process, visit Citymart.com/call/SICBarcelona.

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