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Building the roadmap to enable social innovation to flourish

EU funded project harnessing innovation to solve Ireland’s key societal challenges

In 2022, social innovation is solving some of the greatest challenges facing Irish society in new and more inclusive ways, but you probably don’t know it yet. Social innovation support organisations Rethink Ireland and Genio have come together to enable this vision by leading the development of a National Competence Centre for Social Innovation (NCCSI) in Ireland.

CoRá is Ireland’s first National Competence Centre on Social Innovation and is being developed to help shape policy and inform the future development of social innovation in Ireland. This project is co-funded by the European Commission and the Department of Community and Rural Development and is informed by partners in Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Portugal.

Rethink Ireland is a charity that receives funding from philanthropists, businesses, companies and individuals, and the Department of Rural and Community Development. Genio scales social innovations to solve complex social problems. Gráinne Smith, FUSE project coordinator, Genio says, “Along with Rethink Ireland, we are delighted to be part of this project and welcome the opportunities presented. We are excited about sharing our expertise in scaling social innovations to solve complex social problems”.

Rethink Ireland supports social innovations with cash grants and business supports,” explains Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Rethink Ireland. “We support new ideas and approaches from non-profits that can help to solve those social and environmental issues that we struggle with as a nation. Our task is to support those innovators with the funds, knowledge, and the advice they need to succeed on a national scale.”


The EU-funded research project came into being following an open call for funding from the European Commission. “The EU is putting huge emphasis on social innovation, as a way of tackling social challenges across Europe,” Mortell adds. “We partnered with Genio and similar organisations in the other countries on the project. The aim of the project is to look at what’s there in terms of social innovation in Ireland and what needs to be done to take it to the level where it needs to be. It’s also about increasing awareness of social innovation and building capacity for it in each country.”

Lots of organisations are actually social innovators but they don't realise it

She explains the importance of social innovation. “It addresses the most difficult problems in areas like mental health, climate, and education. What social innovation does is help to make a difference by solving the issues in novel ways. We recognise the importance of innovation in the private sector economy, but we don’t have the same appreciation for it in the non-profit sector. If we gave it that same recognition just imagine what could happen?”

Building awareness of social innovation will help to address that issue. “Lots of organisations are actually social innovators but they don’t realise it,” Mortell notes. “Grow Remote is a great example of a social innovation helping employers to enable remote working, and helping potential employees in the four corners of Ireland to identify remote jobs. FoodCloud is another excellent example of social innovation which is redistributing food that would otherwise go to waste. We saw all kinds of social innovations developed during Covid-19, including Safety Net’s mobile testing clinic that attended direct provision centres and homeless accommodation to speed up testing at the height of the pandemic. ”

Research on the strengths and needs of social innovation in Ireland was carried out by Lucas Olmedo, a researcher based at the Department of Food Business and Development at University College Cork. “I carried out a literature review of the social innovation landscape in Ireland,” he says. “I surveyed 62 organisations and conducted 16 interviews with different stakeholders who support the social innovation ecosystem. These included organisations from the public sector, industry, academia, and civic society. I got their views on social innovation and the support structures for it in Ireland. The idea was to gather information on the strengths and weaknesses of the support infrastructure.”

The report found that there is an early-stage social innovation ecosystem in existence in Ireland but that more could be done to support it. “There are lots of social innovators and entrepreneurs doing a lot of things to tackle the big challenges facing society,” Olmedo notes. “There is some support for them, but it needs to be developed much further.”

Support is particularly needed to help pilot and scale social innovative ideas and organisations. Currently the support base is coming mainly from the public sector and civil society organisations.

“There is a need for more financial experimentation,” says Olmedo. “Social innovation is a hybrid and produces a blend of social and economic outcomes. The existing supports don’t recognise that. Social innovation is very cross-sectoral in nature, but the structures tend to be siloed

An example of the cross-cutting nature of the sector is Housing First. “It is dealing with some very significant issues including housing provision, homelessness, mental health, and social inclusion.”

Part of the difficulty faced by the social innovation sector is its diversity. “The organisations surveyed are very diverse and range from supporting Traveller women, children with disabilities, recycling, and the whole circular economy,” he explains. “It’s very hard to put an umbrella over all of these organisations. It’s difficult to come up with a single definition that’s empirically tangible. It’s very challenging to come up with something that works for all. But this is one of the main aims of this project and of the National Competence Centre for Social Innovation.”

The project can have a real and lasting impact

The research findings show that if the sector is to be developed, more strategic and long-term thinking is required from the support base.

The next stage in the research is just starting. “This is the consultation phase to help develop a blueprint for the social innovation sector in Ireland,” says Olmedo.

“Transnational cooperation and peer learning is a key element of the project,” Mortell adds.  “Portugal is quite advanced when it comes to social innovation, so we can learn from them. Ireland is probably in the middle ground, but we are a bit ahead of Cyprus and Bulgaria and we can help them.”

She also emphasises “The project can have a real and lasting impact, by working to build capacities of key social innovation players across local and national government, academia, industry, and civil society, to strengthen and enhance their capacity to act, encouraging cross-sectoral experimentalism, and new collaborative ways of working. The start-up ecosystem has been systematically strengthened in recent years, our goal is to do the same for the social innovation ecosystem."

Learn more about the CoRá project and read the research - www.coraireland.ie