• Systems social entrepreneurs can be crucial allies for governments in tackling the challenges societies face.
  • Governments can accelerate change by collaborating with systems social entrepreneurs on institutionalizing successful social innovations.
  • A new report identifies action areas for governments to foster this collaboration.

The economic and social effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be more severe, more unequal and longer-lasting than anyone has imagined. With increased uncertainty due to new virus strains and renewed lockdown measures, healing the wounds of COVID-19 will be a formidable, high-stakes task for societies and, particularly, for governments.

However, even before the pandemic, many of our societal systems were not working to the equal benefit of all members of society, resulting in growing division and instability far too often. COVID-19 has in many ways worsened this situation, as health outcomes continue to be worse for disadvantaged groups and lockdown measures have hurt women and those employed in the informal sector in particular.

More than ever, collaboration between different sectors and actors is required to remedy these inequalities and hardships, and strengthen trust and cohesion in societies around the world.

Introducing systems thinking

In the current high-pressure situation, “systems social entrepreneurs” – actors who develop innovative approaches to persistent, complex social problems by employing systems thinking – can be crucial allies for governments. They are a source of proven innovations for the good of all and create the conditions and support for sustainable, equitable systems change through their participative methods, entrepreneurial mindset, and trusted relationships with affected communities.

For example, systems social entrepreneurs have improved access to healthcare in otherwise unreachable areas by deploying hospital ships; shifted the role of women by training them to install sustainable energy sources in their communities; and increased democratic accountability by creating transparency in elected officials’ stakeholder meetings and voting patterns.

As keen collaborators with strong networks and community support, systems social entrepreneurs are powerful guides and allies for governments in their fight against the urgent systemic issues of our time – in particular, when it comes to addressing the social inequalities that have been amplified by the pandemic.

By collaborating with systems social entrepreneurs and institutionalizing social innovations, governments can boost the achievement of positive change for all of society. Governments are in a unique position to amplify innovative approaches to social issues, for example by implementing new policies or modifying government-run programmes. Such changes can be implemented rather rapidly when there is a shared sense of urgency, as the global reaction to the pandemic has demonstrated.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Social innovators address the world’s most serious challenges ranging from inequality to girls’ education and disaster relief that affect all of us, but in particular vulnerable and excluded groups. To achieve maximum impact and start to address root causes, they need greater visibility, credibility, access to finance, favourable policy decisions, and in some cases a better understanding of global affairs and access to decision makers.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is supporting more than 400 late-stage social innovators. By providing an unparalleled global platform, the Foundation’s goal is to highlight and expand proven and impactful models of social innovation. It helps strengthen and grow the field by showcasing best-in-class examples, models for replication and cutting-edge research on social innovation.

Meet the World-changers: Social Innovators of the Year 2020. Our global network of experts, partner institutions, and World Economic Forum constituents and business members are invited to nominate outstanding social innovators. Get in touch to become a member or partner of the World Economic Forum.

Government leaders at all levels can thus become multipliers for systems social entrepreneurs’ impact: when they take on an innovation developed and tested by a systems social entrepreneur and make it the new ‘default’, its impact can expand to an entire community or even society at large. For example, the Romanian government is building on the holistic, interdisciplinary approach developed by NoRo, a patients-run reference centre for rare diseases, in the design of a public accreditation scheme for doctors treating rare diseases.

Around the world, systems social entrepreneurs assume a crucial R&D role for society and governments have been successfully adopting their policy solutions with significant improvements for constituents.

Five areas to take action

Based on our experience and interviews with more than 50 public and social sector experts, we see five areas in which governments can take action to foster collaboration with systems social entrepreneurs:

  • Inform innovative approaches and new initiatives by sharing existing public sector data and co-creating new kinds of data with systems social entrepreneurs.
  • Build capabilities among civil servants and systems social entrepreneurs to enable mutual understanding and collaboration.
  • Develop funding models (or adapt existing ones) that recognize the characteristics of systems social entrepreneurs.
  • Promote collaboration among public sector organizations and between the public, private and social sectors.
  • Foster institutionalization by co-creating innovative solutions with systems social entrepreneurs and developing clear pathways for adopting successful innovations.

Governments also stand to benefit economically from this collaboration, because many social innovations have a positive financial impact at a societal level in the long run. In “From Small to Systemic. The Multibillion-Euro Potential in Social Innovations”, Ashoka Learning and Action Center and McKinsey & Company estimate that the benefit potential of social innovations developed by Ashoka Fellows in Germany could be as high as €18 billion a year.

A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute corroborates the benefit potential of improving health outcomes globally: according to “Prioritizing health: A prescription for prosperity”, the global disease burden could be reduced by over 40% utilizing known healthcare interventions only, avoiding 230 million premature deaths by 2040 and generating a global GDP potential of $12 trillion in 2040.

What is the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

The COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship is a coalition of 85 global leaders, hosted by the World Economic Forum. Its mission: Join hands in support of social entrepreneurs everywhere as vital first responders to the pandemic and as pioneers of a green, inclusive economic reality.

Its COVID Social Enterprise Action Agenda, outlines 25 concrete recommendations for key stakeholder groups, including funders and philanthropists, investors, government institutions, support organizations, and corporations. In January of 2021, its members launched its 2021 Roadmap through which its members will roll out an ambitious set of 21 action projects in 10 areas of work. Including corporate access and policy change in support of a social economy.

For more information see the Alliance website or its “impact story” here.

If humankind takes away one lesson from a year that many of us would rather forget, it might be the importance of collaboration in addressing complex, large-scale challenges. We hope that greater collaboration between governments and systems social entrepreneurs – unique actors that are crucial for this moment – can help address the social challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

This year, let all of us find ways to open doors for these new allies and unlock their potential to accelerate our path towards a better, fairer and more sustainable future.

Learn more in the new report “New Allies,” developed in collaboration between Catalyst 2030 and its founding partners Ashoka, Echoing Green, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Skoll Foundation, facilitated by McKinsey & Company - all also members of the World Economic Forum’s COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs. Jutta Bodem-Schrötgens, Florian Rutsch and Katharina Wagner contributed to this article.