Social Innovation

Small local innovators are highly effective at tackling big global issues. Here's why

Sekem - supports schools—from nursery-level right up to university-level.

Macro systems are resistant to change - but micro action can make an impact. Image: Sekem - helping schoolchildren from nursery to university

Flora Rosenow
Global Brand Strategy & Communication for Impact, C-Change
Katerina Hoskova
Community & Initiatives Specialist Global Alliance, World Economic Forum
Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum
Carolien de Bruin
Head, COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs, World Economic Forum
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SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

  • Gender equality and the fight against climate breakdown have been set back by the pandemic.
  • Income stagnation and inequalities are compromising our global systems.
  • We should be turning to examples of altruism for a blueprint of how the future might be shaped.

World leaders had their work cut out for them at last week’s G7 summit where vaccine diplomacy, trade, climate and rebuilding infrastructure in the developing world were among the thorny topics on the agenda.

After a year and a half of the pandemic, it is clear as never before that the world urgently needs a new approach.

But despite a rising chorus of voices calling for business, government and society to take this opportunity to build a better world, a host of metrics seems to suggest that we are about to let this chance slip through our fingers.

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Data makes it beyond clear that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the poor and the vulnerable. One UN report showed that income inequality has increased in most developed countries, and some middle-income countries — including China. Meanwhile, new IMF data shows that advanced economies are likely to recover from the crisis more quickly than emerging economies.

In addition, there is evidence that gender equality and the fight against climate breakdown have been severely set back. Unless we change our ways — and fast — this will continue to get worse.

But change is hard. Like the massive cargo ship wedged fast in the Suez Canal earlier this year, we are stuck in our old ways and it’s getting us nowhere fast.

We’ve known for a while that entrenched and complex systems are resistant to change. The Black Lives Matters protests of the past year, for example, are an all too clear signal that more than 200 years after the abolition of slavery, systemic racism persists in the world.

Nobel prize winning economist Esther Duflo says that one of the reasons for this resistance may be that the way we are framing the choices is too stark: ie. economic growth or the survival of the planet. In part, she says this is because we place too narrow a focus on income as a marker of wellbeing, at the expense of a broader recognition of the importance of community and human dignity.

This is, in a sense, paralysing policy-making — and decision-makers; they’d rather tread water in the status quo than risk losing all.

The individual versus the community

Economists Paul Collier and John Kay have a not too dissimilar view, arguing that the income stagnation and inequalities we see today, which are contributing to the sclerosis of our global systems, are largely due to the rise of extreme individualism at the expense of community.

At the core of their hypothesis is what they call the “repellent” invention of “Economic Man”, a kind of market fundamentalism that insists that people act only to maximize their self-interest, when in fact there are plenty of examples to the contrary; that people are driven by a strong sense of collectivism.

In fact, we’ve seen this altruism in action during the COVID-19 crisis perhaps more than ever before, and it is to these examples that we should be turning for a blueprint of what the future might look like.

One such example is the people’s vaccine initiative, an unprecedented global collaboration of world leaders, health and humanitarian organizations at all levels that is calling for an end to monopoly control by drug companies so that enough vaccines, tests and treatments can be secured for all people in all nations.

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The public favour allocation based on need, followed by inability to afford vaccination. Image: From

Then, in cities like Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris, local governments are seeking to promote alliances with citizens and urban operators to lead collective processes of change.

Radical new mindsets and approaches like these can drive transformative change and redefine collaboration in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. They also point to another truth; we need to empower more citizens to participate in their economies and to contribute to solving our collective challenges. In this, social entrepreneurs have a critical role to play.

How social entrepreneurs mastered "going local" a long time ago

Social innovators and social entrepreneurs have been working to solve market failures and demonstrate more sustainable models to build inclusive economies for years, and during the COVID-19 pandemic they have proved invaluable in getting help to where it’s needed most: on the frontlines of the crisis where markets and governments have been unable to reach.

These smaller, innovative and, above all, more agile actors are (metaphorically speaking) the tug boats that can help us get unstuck.

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What is the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship?

They have the trust, capacity, talent, experience and understanding of context to trial new and local solutions, get to hard-to-reach people and places, build coalitions of local actors, and get much-needed resources, ideas and energy flowing through the arteries of the world economy.

A world in which a single giant ship can derail global trade for a week won’t help to put us back on track for meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

François Bonnici

Examples of such organizations abound. Take Community Solutions, an organization that has helped to end homlessness — a problem that many had written off as unsolvable — in 15 communities in the US. They’ve done this by building a data-driven coalition of local actors, including government agencies and nonprofit organizations, called Built for Zero. It focuses on person-specific, real-time information and interventions to get people off the streets.

And Egyptian organization Sekem, a Schwab Foundation awardee, is helping whole sectors and corporations get unstuck through its reinvention of local food systems. Using biodynamic agriculture techniques, Sekem has reclaimed a stretch of desert north of Cairo and now supplies local textile, natural medicines and herbal tea businesses that employ upward of 2,000 people.

Beyond that, Sekem supports schools—from nursery-level right up to university-level— and a development foundation that runs microfinance projects and initiatives to help nearby farms convert to sustainable techniques.

What would the world look like if we chose to magnify the impact of these highly effective local actors as the agents of change?

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

We know in our bones that it is time to change and that time is running out for us to act. We need to intensify the pressure on our leaders to not waste any more time.

Now that the talking is over, the work must begin. A world in which a single giant ship can derail global trade for a week won’t help to put us back on track for meeting the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals; a world with multiple innovative actors with human dignity and the safety of the planet enshrined as its central principle, just might.

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Related topics:
Social InnovationHealth and Healthcare SystemsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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How these social innovators harness community and collaboration to help create system change

Sophia Otoo and Francois Bonnici

May 1, 2024

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