Social Innovation in Flanders

I was invited to give a keynote speech at a recent conference in Brussels organised by the Social Innovation Factory – SIF  ( to celebrate its first year of operations.  While I think my speech went down OK, I am sure I got much more out taking part than I gave.  I met some fantastic social innovators, who with support from the SIF were doing some amazing things.

Many of the innovations were centred around what is coming to be seen as the sharing economy.  There was an online platform, connecting people in their local areas, allowing them to borrow things from each other. Starting with small items to help with things like going on holiday without spending a fortune (e.g. guidebooks, car bike racks and tents) the platform is now scaling up and organising insurance so that people feel happy about lending more expensive things like power tools.  Then there was the co-operative model responding to the rapid rise in land prices that limits young people entering the agricultural sector. The co-operative buys land and then rents it (based on a sound business plan) at an affordable rent to young people who want to get into the agricultural sector. This recently formed co-operative has 250 member investors and has just let-out its first 2 hectare small-holding, which will grow organic produce.

With some kind interpretation support from Hanne (a board member at the SIF) I also took part in a workshop about Energybook. Also using a co-operative financing model, Energybook is developing a programme to support schools in Flanders to improve their energy efficiency.  Just like in the UK, a lot of the heating in schools in Flanders leaks away, with the resulting waste of money and damage to the environment. The business model involves parents and other stakeholders investing their money into the co-operative, which in turn then invests in energy saving measures such as better insulation and in renewable energy production through the installation of solar panels in the schools. This investment is repaid overtime with the savings made on energy savings. Interestingly the engagement of pupils and parents in the process is seen as just as important as the direct financial benefits.

There was also a management consulting company that mixed the knowledge of very experienced professionals on the point of retirement with young people just entering the profession. They work together in pairs on their assignments. Operating along commercial lines, but with some limits on profit distribution the model was proving highly successful and had reached the finalist stages of the EU Social Innovation Competition.

All these social innovations had been supported by SIF which acts as a “super connector” helping innovators get the support to develop and scale their ideas. SIF is supported to do this with funding from the Flanders Region Government, which also has a special investment fund aimed at supporting social innovation.

The theme of my speech was about the need for us to work together on a number of levels to take forward the agenda for social innovation and social entrepreneurship, especially in the context of the new European Commission and Parliament.  It was clear that colleagues in Flanders are keen to engage and have a lot to share.

Paradoxically I suspect that many in the European Commission are unaware of what they have on their doorstep. Equally for the people in Flanders the Commission’s policies and programmes seem distant and somewhat of a labyrinth to get access to. Now more than ever we need to work together to shape what happens next and open up the EU labyrinth to some disruptive change-makers.