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Let’s Talk Social Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean

Let me ask you a question, do you really know what social entrepreneurship means?

This was a reflection from one of the youth cohort members of the social entrepreneurship network, Panama Youth Connection. These youth winners of IRI’s Ideathon in Panama became community leaders in 2017, but are now opening new doors to entrepreneurship through the Panama Youth Connection platform, whose spirit is to help other young people at social risk formulate more projects with a community impact.

The concept of social innovation is booming in Latin America and the Caribbean, and it is already a fundamental factor for the business world, academia, research and development cooperations. Social innovation opens up the possibility of designing, creating and implementing projects with a novel angle, providing 'out of the box' solutions at low cost. And Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is playing a key role.

In 2008, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the WK Kellogg Foundation developed the project 'Experiences in Social Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean.' The project aimed at analyzing and disseminating best practices that address challenges such as poverty, peace, prosperity, environment protection and other objectives of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. With 4,800 projects received, 72 final projects and 25 winners, the region needs more of these types of initiatives, which become successful experiences and lessons learned and lead to social-economic growth and human development at the regional level.

I recently participated in the second Latin American Social Innovation Network (LASIN) conference in Bogotá, Colombia. LASIN is a network of universities in the LAC region and Europe that seeks to share models of innovation and lessons learned to help new social entrepreneurs transform their communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Manon van Leeuwen, a Social Innovation Adviser, rightly argues in the blog 8 Social Innovation Initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean that drive for innovation starts at the local community. However, the conclusion that I took away from the conference is that the path for creating shared value in social innovation requires a combined effort among different actors, from social entrepreneurs, to government actors, private companies and academia.

And why does each of them count? Because each actor represents an essential piece in the human development puzzle, especially in the interests of sustainability and to maximize human and financial resources. However, it is interesting to note that there is still a lot of work to be done in regard to the role and contribution of the private sector, a sector that may still be stigmatized due to its business mission. The sector needs to find its place in the scene of social innovation in the region beyond the contribution of social corporate responsibility.

During the conference, speakers shared interesting experiences as examples of projects to replicate in the rest of the region. Projects such as 'Balloom Latam' in Chile, for example, create and promote community networks through research and training programs in order to enhance the cultural, socio-environmental, human and economic value of local communities, ultimately seeking to achieve self-resilience. Balloom Latam connects professionals in the agricultural industry with rural entrepreneurs to develop workshops and methodologies to improve their production and share their prosperity with their communities. Agronomy students and rural regional coordinators assist the implementation of the designed strategies. In cases where municipalities have the capacity and resources, they intervene with the collection of baseline data.

This project was replicated in Argentina and Mexico and managed to impact more than 400 entrepreneurs. Despite the support received by the national government, the challenge of sustainability persists, and this is where the implementing community needs to think of ways to engage non-traditional actors, like the private sector.

In Panama, the City of Knowledge Foundation created a hub of 'innovation of knowledge and competitiveness' in the late 90s. The City of Knowledge serves as a laboratory for the creation of projects that contribute to a holistic growth through education, research and innovation. With more than 5,000 people from national and international non-governmental organizations, as well research institutes, academia and innovation companies, participants collaborate on new ideas and share successful projects, bringing more added value to the community and the region.

Is social innovation an innate or learned skill? Social innovation is a powerful tool for human development, for the socio-economic fabric of local communities, and for the progress of the country as a whole. A synchronized and coordinated combination of governmental, non-governmental, academia and private sector actors is essential to ensure that international development projects are sustained with efficient management within an innovation framework.

The potential for innovation resides in each of us, and new generations need greater resources for more research and development (R & D), exchange platforms, expert forums and training programs to find better solutions to the challenges of today and of the future. This would help the LAC region to advance the fulfillment of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, but also to achieve a greater competitive advantage to face other challenges at the global level.

However, there's still a lot to tell/say. Would you like join the conversation?