Social Innovation Summit

by Alejandra Rivera, 4CITIES Cohort 10

This writing is about the internal struggle we sometimes face about doing or not doing ‘optional’ extra work, and aims to reaffirm that the rewards are always worth the work.

For my master thesis, I’m looking at social innovation in Medellin and Malmö. I’m interested in the initiatives in each city aimed at promoting social inclusion to improve quality of life and the empowerment of disadvantaged social groups. While doing online research for social innovation cases in Malmö, I came across an incredible double coincidence: an event called “Social Innovation Summit” happening in Malmö, promoted by the organizations that I had on my list of important actors to interview.

I decided I needed to attend. But I was conflicted for many reasons. First, this would entail at least three full days in Malmö, including one entirely for preparation (doing research about the attendees and doing my roadmap to know strategically who to approach, etc.) and then the two full days of the event itself. I started to fantasize. Time is a scarce commodity these days. A second conflict was the timing, as I had plans to be in Barcelona that week at another international conference called ‘Smart Cities’ for which I had earned already a free entrance. A third issue was the entrance fee to this ‘Social Innovation Summit’ which was 2,500 Swedish krona (approx. 245 euros). Should I spend half of my rent for a two-day event?

I decided I had to do it. To invest the time, work hard, and to let go of the Smart Cities conference in Barcelona. I kept exploring the website and found some fine print that said the entrance fee would be waved for speakers of the summit. I thought, how lucky are the speakers! I wish I had a free entrance because this is really relevant to my master thesis! Then, I thought, why not? If it’s so relevant for me, I must also have something to say!

I contacted the organizers and expressed my interest to speak at the summit’s research seminar. I had no idea what I could talk about but I just knew I needed to be there, surrounded by so many key actors in my research. I would figure out the rest later. I was asked to send the abstract of the paper I would be presenting. I freaked out! I had no abstract, I had no paper, and I had no time! I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into, but I was past the point of no return.

I had already done some fieldwork on my first case study, in Medellin, during the summer, so I wrote a couple of pages about the socially innovative initiatives that I found there along with some background information on the context of the city and how that serves as fertile ground for these innovations. I tried. That is all I could do, right? Surprisingly, a couple of days later, I was notified of a time allowance of 20 minutes + discussion, along with practical information and logistics of place, time, structure, the other researchers in the panel, etc. I had achieved my objective, and now I had to prepare this presentation for an audience of experienced researchers in social innovation and god-knows what other audience or how large it would be. I was terrified.

The weekend before the presentation I worked so hard. It was a way to push myself to organize all the data I had collected in Medellin and start extracting some insights from it, to advance in my thesis development as well as to prepare for the conference. Sometimes I questioned if it is worth it to put so much more pressure on myself and do all this extra work when I have to write the thesis proposal in a couple of weeks. I could use this time to work on my theoretical framework, to sleep, or just to drink a beer with friends. Do I have to do this? Of course not! But then I thought this is life experience and it is happening now, I have this opportunity at my doorstep, it would be foolish to let it go.

On the day of my presentation, I was so nervous I woke up at 5:30 from excitement and adrenaline. I had only experienced such a rush the night before I ran a half marathon in Miami last year. The anticipation to a big performance is translated into chemical and physiological processes inside the body that end up in an uncomfortable, nerve-racking, but positive feeling. I have heard how athletes at the Olympics use that nervousness, that adrenaline as high energy for their big moment. Not that my moment was of such comparable dimensions, but I thought I could apply the lesson.

I prepared the best I could, rehearsed my presentation a few times, read the abstracts and papers of the other researchers presenting at the seminar, and had a few questions ready for discussion. I tried to make the best out of this opportunity, and to step up to the expectations. I wanted to be in the same playing field as the other researchers, at least for that moment, even though the decades of experience and age difference was intimidating.

I went in with the assumption that I would meet a hostile audience that would critique my novice lines of thought, but the reality could not be further from this assumption. The other researchers in the panel were very nice, they were actually interested in my work, and did not criticize it but instead seemed genuinely curious about my first case study. I felt comforted.

It was a very fruitful exchange. I also learned about the current research being done in Scandinavia about social innovation. I met interesting people that opened my mind to other perspectives and they helped me grow less vulnerable to possible criticisms.

The Social Innovation Summit itself was also very interesting. I saw how wide the spectrum of meaning is for the term ‘social innovation’ depending on the emphasis placed on either social or commercial gains. Most of the summit approached the concept as synonymous to ‘social entrepreneurship’ which entails some sort of social mission or social component in a business, but the degree of social commitment varied widely among the entrepreneurs. It was a different approach to the more people-centered definition that I use in my master thesis, but eye-opening nonetheless.

I met idealists and utopians, and hard-core conservatives even refusing the idea of change, and everyone in between. Most people I met agreed that society needs to shift towards some kind and some degree of improvement: “we need to be better as a whole”. Most agreed that inequality is a problem, even if they did not agree on the causes. The attendees of this summit of social innovation, including entrepreneurs, have a good heart, have the true intension to do good, to change in society what is not working. However, it was much more difficult to find a convergence of methods to achieve that change. They – we – don’t know exactly how to do it. These are long debates on difficult topics, but at least they are being discussed, ideas are being exchanged, and contacts are being made.

This was one of the hardest and most work-intensive ‘assignments’ of the Copenhagen semester, but also one of the most enriching experiences, because great rewards come after hard work. Presenting my findings so far on social innovation in Medellin at this summit made me grow as a student, as a professional, as a scholar, and as a person. The sleepless nights, the stress and anxiety of preparation for this self-inflicted challenge, were all worth it in the end.

In testing situations, I remember the words of my tenth-grade history teacher Mr. Fahringer: “Every new thing that you try to do will be the hardest thing you have ever done”, and I suppose that will be true at any age. The perception of our fears and insecurities is relative to our own previous experiences and accomplishments, and it is this relativity of challenges that allows us to see future ones as untapped potential to facilitate the current ones.

As 4citizens we face numerous challenges as we move our life from one city to the next, reading, researching, learning, expanding our horizons, our friends, our ties, and also our limits. I see this two-year experience as a self-discovery journey that challenges us constantly and in every aspect of our lives. We have to make daily decisions, of what we do, what we choose to learn and to absorb, and most importantly, what we will do with that knowledge and experience to make the world a better place in the future. It is our decision to take on ‘the extra work’ that is hard, that is challenging, but that is also immensely rewarding.