Social Innovation Factory

Manufacturing Social Innovation

After a great many visits within one day in Amsterdam I really enjoyed spending an entire day at Sociale InnovatieFabriek (SIF) in Brussels, Belgium. In case you ever wondered which governments fund social innovation and social entrepreneurship: The Belgian does. Or, more precisely, the Flemish government.  If you think anything like me, you wonder how a country as small as Belgium can possibly have region-specific governments and funding policies for social innovation. I learned that Flanders and Belgium, in fact, underlie different, not to say at times opposing, regional governments with a strong influence on the political landscape in Brussels.

SIF’s support model

With funding for four years, Sociale InnovatieFabriek started in July 2013 to promote social innovation and social entrepreneurship in the Flemish region of Belgium. The team around Kaat Peeters is nine staff strong (or 7.1 full-time equivalents as they like to point out) who work on social innovation by providing support to social innovators, aspiring entrepreneurs, and conducting research in these areas.

Not every solution to a societal challenge can or should be entrepreneurial @KaatSIF Click To Tweet

Notice the distinction: Social Innovation Factory does not focus solely on social entrepreneurs:”We provide services to early-stage social innovators and social entrepreneurs – not every solution to a societal challenge can or should be entrepreneurial; hence the broad approach.” says Kaat. These services include

  • events, trainings and their community platform for social innovators to connect with and learn from each other,
  • SIF’s learning network that operates on a unique currency to manage advice and peer-support,
  • access to research, surveys, opinions and needs-based advisory services, as well as
  • a resource center that holds publications, toolkits and guidelines.

Around 150 social innovators make use of Sociale InnovatieFabriek’s (I just like saying it!) services per year on an average engagement of six months.

Engaging with your peers, and by that, I mean ENGAGING

To me, Social Innovation Factory has managed to set up a support program that is very much driven by the community members, the skills they bring, and expertise they are willing to share with each other. Already during intake interviews, potential participants are assessed not only based on their idea and support needs but on the skills and expertise they bring to the community and can offer to their peers. Their custom-made database tracks when participants receive and give support through an alternative currency. Sociale Innovatiefabriek sees itself as an enabler occasionally giving input but mainly managing the logistics of the program.

We encourage peer-support through an alternative currency. Click To Tweet

Imagine you are a social entrepreneur who has benefited from, say, two input sessions (-16 points). Before you can receive any more support, it is your turn to pass on some of your knowledge to another participant (+8 points/session). The team around Kaat will help you prepare with content and methods to go into the session. But beyond that, it’s all about understanding your session-partner’s business and advising him/her in solving the issue they scheduled the session for. With my experience in peer-learning, there is great value in this approach for at least three reasons:

Number 1: Participants value the support they receive because it’s not free. Mutual support and the philosophy of give-and-take make a strong currency that I believe is a great driver for community building.

Number 2: I think that peer-sessions are almost always valuable for both participants. Putting yourself into the shoes of someone else and their venture, more often than not, helps you see your own venture and challenges in a different light. It’s a two-way conversation and invites both participants to draw parallels and share their experience. You never know what you will find.

Number 3: In the majority of incubators and co-working spaces you will find a community mainly based on the shared location, maybe the program, or potentially similar issues they work on. Participants may talk about their ventures during an introductory session, or in the tea kitchen, but how often do co-working start-ups really understand what their peers are working on, where they are struggling, and how one can potentially help?

Intake session at Social Innovation Factory

Intake session at Social Innovation Factory

I think this level of in-depth peer-support makes for a truly tightly-knit community in which members appreciate each other, are willing to help and really understand the nature, challenges and successes of their peers and their ventures.

The Research Bit

Another benefit of Social Innovation Factory’s admirable funding source (don’t be fooled, government funding comes with a set of reporting requirements that I don’t envy) is their ability to devote two staff members to research with and about the social innovators and entrepreneurs they work with on a daily basis. Caroline and Tomas, for example, work solely on knowledge management and research on social impact assessment.

Funded research: stepping away from the daily grind to think strategically. Click To Tweet

Who has the capacity to devote two team positions to looking at big picture questions? I am sure there are limitations, but one of the things I missed the most in my previous positions was doing just that – stepping away from the daily grind and think strategically. That’s how Social Venturers came about, so if the Flemish government wants to throw some funding my way (or almost any government really), find the “Contact Us” link and drop me a line!

I had a great time at Sociale Innovatiefabriek. Not only because I saw one of their intake sessions in action, in Flemish, but because Kaat took time to speak to me, answer my questions, and introduced me to her team who in turn took time to speak to me, and answer my questions. Also, she introduced me to Flemish cuisine and some two very interesting researchers. It was like a day at the SIF-amusement park. I went home tired but blessed.


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