Social innovators are driving the digital infrastructure for a more sustainable and inclusive future


Filipe Santos


At this year’s annual EVPA conference, the EIB Institute hosted a session, which I moderated, showcasing how social innovators are adapting their business models to the pandemic situation. We had presentations from eight european social innovators working on health, well-being, employment and inclusion, including both for-profit and non-profit models.

There is a fear that the pandemic will severely affect the operations and survival of social organizations and impact ventures,. This session presented a more positive view of the resilience and innovative agility of social entrepreneurs. And showed that economic disruptions are also an opportunity for faster adoption of social innovations at a societal level.

The solutions developed by social innovators typically involve enabling and building connections among people and communities. In this regard, the eight ventures showcased can be grouped in three clusters.

– In three of the ventures, the social entrepreneurs developed a platform to enable digital connections as an alternative to (less-functioning) physical connections, thus decreasing cost and increasing access. This was the case of Knok, a Portuguese venture providing online access to doctors, UltraSpecialisti an italian venture providing online access to medical specialists, and Bayes Impact, a French venture developing an AI powered digital employment counsellor. The confinement period made these innovative solutions the only alternative to access important services. Quickly, new institutional players such as corporations, hospital providers and public employment agencies contacted these entrepreneurs for partnerships and for the deployment of their solution. Processes and agreement that normally take several months to negotiate were agreed and implemented in a few weeks and these three ventures greatly accelerated their growth and are achieving a broader adoption of their innovation

– In other three ventures, the social entrepreneurs developed a model enabling physical connections, matching different types of people for mutual benefit. This was the case of Portuguese venture SPEAK creating peer groups of language learning for the inclusion of migrants and refugees, the Irish venture MyMind enabling access to (mostly) psychological appointments for mental well-being and the Spanish venture Adopt a Grand Parent connecting young adults and elders for companionship. These models were severely disrupted by the confinement because these physical connections could no longer take place. However, the entrepreneurs quickly reacted and after a few weeks they had re-invented their model totally online, keeping the essence of the solution but making the connection process digital and more scalable. Now all the three models are growing fast in the digital world.

– The final two ventures had totally physical models involving the inclusive creation and/or distribution of physical products. This was the case of the Spanish venture Koiki, using disadvantaged people to perform the last-mile delivery of e-commerce products in a sustainable way, and the Italian venture Quid, producing and selling sustainable fashion products through inclusive employment. Due to the disruption caused by the confinement, these ventures has to re-invent their business model. Quid used its textile capabilities to certify and produce safety masks (producing more than 1.5 million so far), while Koiki entered the food distribution business to complement the parcel delivery service and expanded its network of distribution points. Not only these ventures preserved their employment, but they were also were able to create new employment by working with an ecosystem of other small textile producers and social organizations that adopted their inclusive employment model.

Overall, this session highlights a fundamental point: a vibrant social innovation ecosystem is essential to generate options for a more resilient, sustainable and inclusive society. The innovative solutions proposed by social entrepreneurs may take time to become widely adopted by society but when disruptions happen and the “normal” way of doing things is no longer possible, this is exactly when society and more institutional players come to appreciate the vision and pioneerism of social innovators and, through partnerships, come to adopt their innovations. In addition, the entrepreneurs in the session highlighted the important role of investors for impact who kept supporting them and, in some cases, funded their new expansion plans. And although I mentioned above the “base country” of each venture, they are all already replicating their innovative models across Europe, with the support of their new partners and their investors, a process that in some cases is being accelerated by the current disruption.

Filipe Santos is Chaired Professor of Social Entrepreneurship and Dean of Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics.

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