Social innovation plan nurtures nation of change


THERE’S A buzz in the air of St Joseph’s Girls National School in Finglas as children wait for their teacher to arrive.

But this is a visiting teacher like no other: toddler Jayden McManus is teaching the children about empathy, parenting skills and emotional responses.

It’s part of a programme developed in Canada called Roots of Empathy, an evidence-based programme that has been shown to reduce levels of aggression among school children, raise their social and emotional competence, and increase their empathy.

Schoolchildren learn to observe the baby closely and understand its needs, emotional responses and view of the world.

As they do so, they gradually learn to bring the same attention to their classmates. As well as empathy, children learn parenting skills and ways to develop a caring attitude for others.

“It’s helping children to recognise their feelings and the feelings of others, and to take control and ownership of their feelings and responses,” says Kerri Smith of Barnardos, the lead agency delivering the programme in classrooms across Ireland. By next year, it’s hoped the programme will have expanded from 35 to 75 schools.

And the Government is considering proposals to include a version for even younger children – called “Seeds of Empathy” – in the free pre-school year scheme.

Much of this has happened thanks to an initiative formally launched earlier this year called Change Nation.

The three-day event, which has the backing of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Cabinet Ministers, was billed as a “social innovation platform” and involved connecting 50 of the world’s top social innovators with philanthropists, and business and political leaders through hundreds of one-on-one meetings.

The idea was to adopt proven solutions to problems in areas such as the environment, education, civic participation and health, and to expand them in Ireland.

But there’s been no shortage of laudable initiatives over recent years to tackle social problems. Most are long on aspiration, but short on delivery.

So, four months on, has Change Nation been able to make any real impact in changing the nation?

Founder of Change Nation and director of Ashoka Paul O’Hara says he is hugely encouraged at the progress in delivering many of the key solutions so far.

His ambition remains that, within a year, at least half of the 50 ideas will either be up-and-running, or well on their way to being realised (see panel).

A plan to introduce more political accountability is just one of the ideas. A new website – based on a German “parliamentwatch” – is due to be launched in September for Ireland, aimed at providing a forum to communicate and hold to account TDs.

Another is about using training and technology to help GPs deliver safe and effective treatment to patients in remote areas. These individuals might otherwise be forced to embark on a long trek to a city-based hospital. To this end, the Health Service Executive is piloting a “Project Echo”, which has been used in parts of the US to promote better care in underserved areas.

The Change Nation team are looking to “piggy-back” on a number of initiatives this year to attract more energy and talent to the campaign.

This includes appearances at the Electric Picnic in September, the Founder’s tech conference in October and the next Global Irish Economic Forum, as well as linking in with Ireland’s presidency of the European Union next year.

But in addition to delivering some of these 50 ideas, O’Hara says it is clear that the Change Nation initiative is more than simply spreading social innovation across Ireland.

He believes, for example, that skills such as empathy, creativity, leadership, the ability to collaborate and resourcefulness need to be taught in schools.

The education system at present, he says, isn’t delivering this. In fact, if anything, it’s killing creativity.

“We need to have a big conversation about this and how to transition what we’re doing into a bigger movement . . . Ultimately, we’re looking to build the kind of society where everyone can be a change-maker.”

Three projects for change

A coding generation:Founded by student James Whelton when he was 19, CoderDojo 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 agreed a partnership with Barnardos to expand the project to disadvantaged young people, as well as a proposal to develop a coding unit within the Department of Education.

Crowd-funded microloans:Kiva is a non-profit organisation that allows individuals to lend small amounts to create opportunities across the globe. It has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in micro-loans to low-income entrepreneurs. Its founders are in talks with the Central Bank and other groups about setting up in Ireland.

Retirement with a purpose:The growing period between the time adults end their careers and when they become relatively inactive in society is now typically 30 years. It is this new stage in life that some are calling the “third age”. There are advanced plans to establish Encore Ireland, an initiative that seeks to combine personal fulfilment, social impact and continued income, enabling people to put their passion to work for the greater good.