Social Innovation Summit Zürich 2016

What an incredible experience! Without having thought about social innovation much before, I am now convinced that it can bring about effective and efficient change in our world according to the bottom-up principle instead of change forced from above/ politics.

Social innovation and entrepreneurship bear a huge potential and allow individuals to use their creativity in a constructive and self-determined way. 
The congress took place in the „Bananenreiferei“ on October 29. Nine students from Karlshochschule went there, being a mixed group of “Firsties”, Third-semester students and Masters. It was a day full of varied activities, encounters, communication, inspiration and fun. There were so-called KeyNotes, lectures by entrepreneurs, researchers or inventors, and they all had in common an authentic enthusiasm to spread their ideas. In addition to the KeyNotes, there were three blocks of either one interactive workshop or two talks to choose from.

The first keynote was about exponential technologies and organizations, given by Yuri van Geest. He illustrated how fast technology has developed over the past few decades, concerning, for example the processing power of computers. In China, there has been built a computer as powerful as all other computers on our planet summed up, and in five, ten, twenty years, computers will exceed the power of all imaginable computers in our known universe. (Reminds me of Douglas Adams’ vision of a computer the size of a whole planet…). In addition, he explained that probably 80% of current jobs will be replaced by machines on long-term. That actually shocked me, because – what will people do if they don’t have any work because they don’t have to work? Would they drift to do unreasonable things or would they use the gained time to be more creative or work on relations between humans and societal problems? Would an unconditional basic income be necessary? Would it make people happier or do we need a meaningful activity like a job to achieve fulfillment – assuming Theory X and/ or Y? There are definitely many interesting discussions on change of societal structures in future.

Speaking of the future: Ben Moore, in the second KeyNote, presented his work on “Ten Billion New Worlds”, meaning the research for exoplanets that are possibly inhabitable. Inhabitable by humans… or already inhabited by extraterrestrial beings? How long will it take us to discover the technological means allowing us to travel to other star systems or galaxies? Well, one thing for sure: We mustn’t forget to sustainably care for our own planet while looking for remote worlds.

The issue of the third KeyNote was “Social innovation and new work: an experiment in self-organisation from betterplace lab”, confronting the audience with a new type of management. It is pretty much anarchic and allows the team members to work in a more self-determined way and leaving space for creativity. The second workshop I attended dealt with similar ideas: called Social Innovation Challenge, we were introduced to renewed management and organizational thinking.

Starting with simple “What if…” questions, we were encouraged to think about business organization in a different way. What if we had an unconditional basic income? What if consumers payed-what-they-wanted for your products? What if sleep during working time was allowed? Everyone came up with different approaches, but as soon as someone had an interesting idea, others contributed with continuing thoughts.. due to a simple question as an incentive.

The fourth keynote finally, “The decade ahead for social entrepreneurship”, was given by a representative of the “World Economic Forum”. I reminisce about the idea that in the decades ahead, social entrepreneurship should shift to system entrepreneurship. Currently, most trends of social innovation happen on a small scale, there are countless Start-Ups with great ideas. If this trend continues, it will probably bring about a change of the whole societal system one day.

I participated in a “Creative Storytelling for Social Impact” workshop, with the topic of brand marketing by means of a catchy story. We discussed how to concentrate on the actual product instead of social commitment. In the following, randomly created groups of people with different kinds of professions (entrepreneurs, investors, students etc.) were supposed to invent an interesting marketing strategy for a tea company. And it was astonishing how every group came up with completely different but nevertheless convincing strategies. I was truly fascinated that people having nothing in common but the interest in social innovation could work together with such convincing results.

Fairphone as well as, the 1-Dollar-Glasses were represented among many other (not so well-known yet). ChobaChoba for example, a chocolate trademark that focuses on a fair production of cocoa by allowing the farmers to directly sell their product and to manage their own business by providing further education. Thereby, there are no middlemen and the farmers themselves earn the whole reward for their work.

I enjoyed two talks, one about “Plastic Soup” and the other one about “Green Start-Ups Rising in Middle East & North Africa”.
The first one was drawing attention to the huge plastic pollution problem we’ve created. Especially small islands don’t have a coastline of sand anymore but of plastic. Plastic Soup’s solution is to install containers on these islands where the collected plastic has to be separated by hand, and the machinery inside recycles it to plastic granulate that can be reused. It is a small step but it might be very effective. Of course, it would be better if we immediately found a substitute for plastic and stopped using it – but as we are already stuck in the plastic spiral, we can’t get out of it immediately. Therefore, reusing instead of producing more and more is a good way to slow down the awkward plastic spiral going downstairs.

The second one showed that the Start-Up-Scene is not only booming in European and western countries, but also in other parts of the world. The lecturer presented the organization “Switchmed” that supports projects all over the Middle East and North Africa. Renewable energy, sustainability, social innovation and entrepreneurship are emerging issues in these regions. Because those areas are already quite dry, they are affected by the climate change even more than we are, forcing them to find new solutions, for I.e. drinking water difficulty. Switchmed is over all a platform to connect those people and to support them by further education. I really loved this talk because it was incredibly inspiring and really made me want to get committed in an organization like Switchmed.

It was a great opportunity to get to know so many different people, all inspired to make the world a better place with their ideas. All projects were quite small still but rapidly growing: and this makes me as an optimist that with enough support, we can bring about change. I really enjoyed the networking and the open-mindedness of all participants, which was simply splendid and will for sure be useful in the future.


I am very grateful that Karlshochschule enabled this experience for me and my fellow students!

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