Innovation is at the core of social, cultural, economic, and technological change. At the most fundamental level, innovation can be understood as a process that involves the generation of new ideas, products, and services, and their adoption, implementation, and diffusion. Nearly all individuals — regardless of race, gender, age, and social class — have the capacity to innovate. Driven by curiosity, creativity, and empathy, people innovate when they solve real-world problems, address personal and community needs, and create an impact in their local contexts.
Although popular narratives of innovation often focus on commercial products and high tech entrepreneurs, the space for innovation is broad and crosses multiple for-profit and non-profit sectors. The process of developing and implementing effective solutions to complex social and environmental problems, for instance, is known as social innovation. Innovators working in this space try to solve structural and systemic issues such as racism, inequality, poverty, violence, and climate change. The concept of social innovation stems from business, civil society, and the government, and has the clear goal of creating positive social and/or environmental impact. According to Mark Wasson, social innovation represents “a way of looking at the enduring problems we face domestically and internationally in new ways, seeking . . . sustainable solutions, and getting everyone involved to build the solutions bottom-up, from individuals up to governments.”
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet a group of Norwegian social innovators and entrepreneurs during a workshop I facilitated at the Nordic Centre for Internet and Society in Oslo, as part of a collaborative research project between Berkman Klein Center’s Youth and Media project and the Norwegian Business School. Through the workshop, we aimed to map the local innovation ecosystem and learn about the different resources social entrepreneurs access and leverage to pursue their passions. With a participatory and exploratory methodology, the workshop helped us to better understand some of the practices that social innovators develop and the range of resources that exist in their local environment.
In this post, I discuss what we learned about social innovation in Norway, how to map local innovation ecosystems and the challenges and opportunities that Norwegian social entrepreneurs confront.
The Norwegian Context: Welfare State and Volunteering Culture.
Social innovation varies according to local contexts and the cultural values of different communities. In Norway, a welfare state with high levels of engagement in social and environmental responsibility, social innovation is pursued by many actors (NGOs, the government, and independent entrepreneurs). Moreover, in this setting, social innovation often carries the support of both public and private sectors. Despite being a social-democratic country with high levels of human development (ranked first according to the United Nations index), and free, universal access to top-quality services (e.g., education, healthcare), a range of problems persist in Norway that are being addressed by social innovators (e.g. exclusion of disadvantaged groups, and the gender gap in educational outcomes). Participants in our workshop have developed projects such as building a center for local journalism and inclusive media production, supporting youth engagement in educational programs, and managing local crowdfunding platforms.
Given the strong culture of volunteering that exists in Norway, people find multiple opportunities for collaborating and solving real-world problems. There is even a word in the Norwegian language for describing volunteer work: “dugnad.” This term refers to work that is done without payment, voluntarily, in groups, and usually rewarded with food and drink. “Dugnad” is part of a Norwegian ancient tradition in which people work together to complete tasks such as outdoor spring cleaning, gardening, and building houses.
However, having a strong volunteer culture can present a challenge for social entrepreneurs that want to build businesses that are sustainable, profitable, and scalable. Some workshop participants explained that for-profit projects related to solving social problems and making a social impact are not always perceived favorably by the Norwegian public. Social entrepreneurs, therefore, feel like they are in the middle of a tension between non-profit NGOs and for-profit startups. On the one hand, like many NGOs, these entrepreneurs have a thematic agenda for social change and impact. On the other, they appeal to start-ups and business that are increasingly interested in social innovation. Navigating such tension has become, according to one of the workshop participants, crucial for making social innovation sustainable, well-received by the public, and scalable.
The notion of an ecosystem is useful for understanding and modeling complex processes that take place in our social world, including innovation. Originally from the field of biology, an ecosystem can be defined as a community formed by living organisms (plants and animals), and their physical environment (soil, air, water, temperature). An ecosystem is also a complex network of relationships situated in a specific location such as a forest, core reef, or desert. The living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) elements of an ecosystem establish relationships between each other and create a system that functions as a whole, where every actor has a functional effect on each other. By analogy, innovators and entrepreneurs are also part of a complex system whereby they access and leverage different resources, and build a network of relationships in order to create new ideas, products, and services.
Simplified marine ecosystem. Image source: WISE / JNCC/ Alejandra Bize
Researchers and practitioners have developed several frameworks for analyzing and mapping the local ecosystems where innovators and entrepreneurs thrive. These frameworks provide methods and conceptual tools for assessing different dimensions of the ecosystem of a particular region, mapping its different components, and identifying relationships among actors. Learning to understand and visualize innovation ecosystems helps multiple stakeholders recognize strengths and weaknesses of their local environments and design and deploy interventions that build capacity in their local communities.
For example, the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs has produced an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Diagnostic Toolkit (2013) that considers ten domains such as infrastructure, human capital, support, and connections, and identifies more than sixty indicators of success that can be measured. Likewise, the Kauffman Foundation published a framework for Measuring an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem (2015) to assess ecosystem vibrancy along four indicators: density, fluidity, connectivity, and diversity. Each indicator has three quantifiable variables. Diversity, for example, can be measured through statistics about immigration, social mobility, and economic specializations.
Focusing on the innovation ecosystems that emerge in specific urban areas (“innovation districts”), researchers from the Brookings Institution proposed a framework that considers three types of assets: economic, physical, and networking assets. According to Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner (2014), “when these three assets combine with a supportive, risk-taking culture they create an innovation ecosystem — a synergistic relationship between people, firms and place (the physical geography of the district) that facilitates idea generation and accelerates commercialization.”
The community capitals framework (CCF), which helps supports community development and has been expanded upon within the field of sociology,also offers tools and methods for mapping and assessing the innovation ecosystem. Originally developed by Cornelia and Jan Flora (2006, 2013) to analyze entrepreneurial communities, this framework focuses on identifying the resources (assets) of a community, rather than looking at its deficits. The framework is based on a study of seven types of community capitals: cultural, natural, human, social, financial, political, and built. These capitals are composed of different resources or assets. Human capital, for instance, includes people skills and abilities; their capacity to access outside resources and knowledge; and their competence to lead the community in an inclusive and participatory way. Each kind of capital plays a particular role in community economic development and social well-being, and the relationships between these various forms of capital support a healthy ecosystem.
The four frameworks I have briefly reviewed are just a sample of the multiple approaches that exist for mapping and assessing innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems. They allow researchers and practitioners to grasp a more holistic and systemic understanding of how innovation takes place in particular local contexts as a result of the interaction and relationships of numerous actors and resources.
An Experiment in Participatory Mapping
During the three-hour workshop at the Nordic Centre, we experimented with a hybrid approach to mapping innovation ecosystems that integrated elements of the frameworks discussed above, and that I have helped to develop and test with the Doing Innovation project back in 2015. Moreover, for this workshop, we decided to apply methodologies from community-led design (e.g., MIT D-Lab; Media, Community and the Creative Citizen project) that supported hands-on activities, visual thinking, and group-based discussion.
After introducing the concept of the ecosystem and its metaphorical uses, we looked at different examples of ecosystem maps and considered their various visual designs and layouts. Then, we presented the six types of community assets (i.e., resources) participants would use for creating their own ecosystem maps. The six assets include:
• Human capital assets: skills, knowledge, experiences, and leadership capacities. Examples: academic experience/education level, computer skills, organizing skills, spoken languages.
• Technological assets: the technologies used for producing and circulating ideas, products, and services. Tools for managing communities, building networks. Examples: computers, mobile devices, multimedia software, social media.
• Economic assets: the institutions and organizations that cultivate or support innovation. Examples: incubators, financiers, venture capitalists, business support services, accelerators, proof-of-concept centers, universities, grants, charities.
• Physical assets: the spaces (public and private) that stimulate new and higher levels of connectivity, collaboration, and innovation. Example: co-working spaces, libraries, old buildings.
• Social capital assets: the relationships between all the elements of the ecosystem (actors, resources, institutions). Relationships have the potential to generate opportunities to make new social ties, access new resources. Examples: networks, partnerships, mentorships, friendships, or other associations.
• Legal and regulatory assets: the local laws and regulations that support innovation and entrepreneurship in a society. Examples: business and property rights, labor laws, tax rates and incentives, government services.
Working in groups of two, the six social entrepreneurs that attended the workshop completed a series of activities that were intended to facilitate the mapping process. We organized the groups according to the regions participants lived and worked. One group represented Oslo, another group was from Trondheim, and the third from Troms.
The first activity consisted of identifying all of the assets that existed in their regional ecosystems. Each group brainstormed as many resources as possible, and wrote them down on sticky notes of different colors according to the six types of assets. Next, they organized this inventory of resources on a large piece of paper. These initial clusters of assets revealed some characteristics about the local ecosystems in terms of density of resources available. The group from Oslo, for instance, a female graphic designer and a male toy inventor, pinpointed more resources for the human capital (14) assets than to any of the others. These resources included team diversity, boldness, networking, storytelling, and entrepreneurial mindset.
In contrast, the group from Trondheim, a female working on a crowdfunding start-up and a male from a charity supporting young people, spotted more resources in the category of economic assets (20) such as: The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) School of Entrepreneurship, Katapult Accelerator, Ferd investing company, and Innovation Norway (government agency).
The second activity required each participant to select the resources most crucial for their respective innovation projects and to reflect on the differences in access that they and other entrepreneurs experienced. For instance, the group from Troms, a male and a female journalist who worked on an independent local media project, identified technology (equipment tools) and social capital assets (network of supporters) as essential in their innovation process.
During the next activity, each group created a map of the innovation ecosystem using the sticky notes they had already created, markers, and large pieces of white paper. This task gave participants the creative freedom to experiment with different map layouts and designs. While developing the maps, participants were encouraged to visualize the relationships between the different assets using markers and repositioning the sticky notes in different ways. Moreover, they had to rank the different kinds of assets they included on the map according to their accessibility (i.e., the degree of availability of a certain resource) using a scale from one to five (1 = very low accessibility, 5 = very high accessibility). By integrating the discussion about relationships and the evaluation of the assets with the visual mapping, this phase of the workshop helped participants better understand their local innovation ecosystems and these systems’ unique characteristics. Looking at each of the ecosystem maps provided visual clues in terms of domains, industry sectors, and access to resources.
For instance, the group from the region of Oslo created an ecosystem in the shape of a spiral, where human capital assets were at the core (ranked as the most accessible ones), helping open opportunities for innovators to access other kinds of resources. In contrast, the Troms innovation ecosystem map bore the shape of a grid with physical, technological, social, and human capital assets at its center, representing their high levels of accessibility. The group from Trondheim designed a map in which the entrepreneurs themselves were positioned in the center, surrounded by the specific resources they leverage. Although the economic assets were numerous in the Trondheim ecosystem map, their ranking in terms of access was low. This group deemed technological assets as most accessible — particularly social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Interestingly, SoCentral, a start-up incubator and co-working space in Oslo, appeared as a resource in each of the maps, but as a different kind of asset (physical, social, and human capital).
After completing the maps, we engaged in a round of presentations where each group showed the map they created and talked about the main characteristics of their local innovation ecosystems. We discussed the strengths of each ecosystem and the strategies they used to leverage resources. Moreover, we exchanged ideas around how they could improve their environments, making them more inclusive, diverse, and vibrant. The group from Trondheim, for example, identified the need for physical assets where innovators and entrepreneurs could meet, mingle, and collaborate. Likewise, the group from Oslo suggested that they could strengthen their ecosystem’s social capital assets by designing an app for speed-dating entrepreneurs and innovators of all different kinds.
Mapping innovation ecosystems in a participatory manner is an insightful, fun, and rewarding process. As the Nordic Center workshop demonstrated, the mapping exercise can be structured in such a way that allows entrepreneurs to be in charge of identifying and assessing the different actors, relationships, and resources that exist in their local innovation ecosystem. The process of creating an ecosystem map opens a collaborative space where participants can experiment with different methods of visualizing the complex innovation process, and reflect on the relationships they built, the roles they play, and the resources they can access.
Feedback from participants was positive and will inform future iterations of the workshop. Two participants suggested that using a case study to frame the mapping exercise could make the activities easier, and accelerate the completion of tasks. In practice, that would mean that instead of asking participants to identify assets from their own perspectives and current projects, they would start from a particular scenario in which they have a pre-defined role, a specific problem to solve, and a particular new product or service to spread in society.
In conclusion, creating maps of the local innovation ecosystems in Norway helped us gain a holistic understanding of the complex system that supports the innovation process, and its strengths and weaknesses. We learned that one of the major challenges for social entrepreneurs is to be able to navigate and connect the worlds of non-profit NGOs, government agencies, and start-ups in a way that makes a project scalable without losing widespread acceptance. By cooperating with multiple stakeholders, and building alliances and networks, innovators can have a greater impact within their communities and beyond in helping to solve pressing social problems.
- Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs. (2013) Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Diagnostic Toolkit. The Aspen Institute.
- Bell-Masterson & Stangler (2015) Measuring an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem. Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.
- Emery, M. E., & Flora, C. (2006). Spiraling-up: Mapping community transformation with community capitals framework. Community Development,37(1), 19–35. doi: 10.1080/15575330609490152
- Fey, S., Bregendahl, C., & Flora, C. (2006). The measurement of community capitals through research. Online Journal of Rural Research & Policy, 1(1), 1–28. doi: 10.4148/ojrrp.v1i1.29
- Flora, C. B., & Flora, J. L. (2013). Rural communities: Legacy and change (4th ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Katz, B., & Wagner, J. (2014). The rise of innovation districts: A new geography of innovation in America. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.