Innovators aiming to change the nation

Sat, Mar 24, 2012, 00:00

DUBLIN CASTLE has been the setting for plenty of hot air through the years.

Tribunals, investigations and talking shops have revealed some of the most unseemly and corrupt aspects of the State.

So, it felt fitting that a day after the Mahon tribunal issued its final report, something positive, uplifting and inspirational emerged from the building.

Yesterday, 50 of the world’s leading social innovators gathered in the high-ceilinged rooms adjoining St Patrick’s Hall to help kick-start an ambitious plan to tackle key challenges facing the country.

The idea behind Change Nation is to connect proven solutions with talent and finance in order to accelerate innovations in areas such as the environment, health, education, civic participation and economic development.

In a way, it’s a heady mixture of Dragons’ Den meets Blind Date: connecting people who are keen to flaunt their bright ideas to local champions in Ireland who are interested in either implementing, investing or promoting the idea.

The event – which continues today at Farmleigh – involves hundreds of brief one-on-one meetings between social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, business and political leaders.

It is the kind of well-intentioned event which cynics might label as a talking shop.

But the organisers don’t see it that way. Each meeting is followed up to determine if there is a commitment arising from it. These pledges will then be revisited over the coming months.

The aim is to get at least half of the 50 ideas (see below) up and running in Ireland within a year.

“This is a workshop, not a talking shop,” said Paul O’Hara, the founder of Change Nation and director of Ashoka, the group which promotes social entrepreneurship, after the Dublin Castle event drew to a close last evening.

By yesterday evening, Twitter was abuzz with commitments, and enthusiastic conversations in corridors were leading to even more pledges of support. “We’ve already logged around 160 commitments here today,” Mr O’Hara said. “Really solid commitments like partnership agreements, commitments to fund projects, help with hiring chief executives . . . It’s exactly what we were hoping for and we’re only halfway there.”

Among the “change-makers” providing commitments to social entrepreneurs yesterday were financier Dermot Desmond; Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay; Department of the Taoiseach Secretary General Martin Fraser and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald.

Speaking earlier in the day, Taoiseach Enda Kenny pledged to help implement any ideas where the Government can play a supportive role.

“We’re committed to reaping the harvest of ingenuity and industry now by doing all that we can to avoid losing sections of our population to long-term unemployment and inactivity,” he said.

As for social entrepreneurs, they said the experience was enriching and exciting, with a rare opportunity to scale-up ideas which in many cases are operating at a very modest level.

For Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, it was a chance to pitch his Youth Venture programme. The idea is to give opportunities to young people to start their own ventures and grasp their own power to solve problems.


Autism as an advantage

Thorkil Sonne, Denmark

Significant numbers of people with autism find it difficult to access the labour market. This Danish project is aiming to tap into people’s special abilities – often hidden behind their disabilities – and place them in mainstream employment with extra understanding and support.

Teaching kids empathy

Mary Gordon, Canada

Gordon’s organisation, Roots of Empathy, is an evidence-based classroom programme that has shown a dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren. It aims to develop young people’s emotional literacy, the ability to recognise and understand emotion in oneself and others, and to respond to their own emotions.

A coding generation

James Whelton, Co Cork

The 19-year-old student is building a movement to inspire young people to learn about software and computer programming. CoderDojo, which involves not-for-profit coding clubs, is run and taught by volunteers. It has just one rule: “Above all: be cool”. Bullying or wasting people’s time, says Whelton, is just uncool.

Create a social stock market

Celso Greco, Brazil

The Bolsa de Valores Sociais, or Social Stock Market, operates successfully within Brazil’s largest stock exchange and offers investors a portfolio of social investment opportunities. Investors measure their return in social impact, holding citizen organisations accountable through regular progress reports.

Nurturing young entrepreneurs

Jerry Kennelly, Co Kerry

His young entrepreneurs programme is already helping to nurture 800 young business leaders every year. With support and guidance, it could expand to help thousands of young people and demonstrate the validity of entrepreneurship as a career choice.

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