In a nutshell,  Social UP is an EU funded project (2016-2018) under the Erasmus+ programme with the aim to cultivate design thinking in social enterprises for improving their social impact, sustainability and scalability in a targeted and financially viable manner. The project is based on and applies the 3 consecutive phases of Design Thinking - INSPIRATION I IDEATION I IMPLEMENTATION - to deliver a DT Field Guide for Social Enterprises!

The landscape
The social economy employs over 11 million people in the EU, accounting for 6% of total employment.
The burgeoning interest in social entrepreneurship across Europe has been driven by the growing recognition of the role social enterprises can play in tackling societal and environmental challenges while addressing the spill-over effects of the global economic crisis, austerity measures and the increasing withdrawal of public agencies from social services supply in tandem with new and growing social needs. With social enterprises focusing on a number of state-related services, their increasing number is expected to result in widespread gains for public budgets. Their attractiveness as employers is increasing as well, e.g. the number of full-time employees working in Dutch social enterprises had increased by 12% between 2012 and 2014.
According to European Commission forecasts, social enterprises in Europe are expected to grow into a dynamic and diverse entrepreneurial movement, encapsulating the drive for new business models that combine economic activity with social mission and the promotion of inclusive growth. Aiming to create an enabling ecosystem across Europe conducive to the development of social enterprises, the EU has introduced several practices alongside new regulations.

The challenges
Despite the increasing interest and support to social enterprises, their survival and growth is still hindered by several internal key constraints encompassing lack of viable business models, high reliance on the public sector as a source of income, lack of entrepreneurial spirit as well as shortage in skills and specialised advisory services.
With startup survival rates very low (50-90% startups fail in their first 4 years) mainly due to inability to target a real market need, creating a sustainable startup business model and strategy continuously ranks among the top-5 support needs of social enterprises, especially given social entrepreneurs’ innovative business ideas or plans based often on non-proven concepts, that investors often consider too risky.

The needs
Clearly, there is a growing need to bring about new perspectives, tools, and approaches to strengthen social start-ups to survive and have access to investment markets. The social sector is ripe for innovative approaches, and it has been strongly demonstrated that the culture of design thinking has the power to unlock real impact.

Design Thinking (DT)
Design thinking is a creative act that stems from deep empathy and understanding of needs and motivations of people who make up the everyday world of any given business. It’s a structured approach to generating and evolving ideas and has 3 generic phases that help navigate the development process from the point of identifying a design challenge to finding and building a solution. INSPIRATION: Introducing the Challenge and Exploring User Issues I IDEATION: Initial Solution Design, Prioritising and Simple Prototyping I IMPLEMENTATION: Service Blueprints, Prototyping, Impact Assessment and Solution Pitches.
Constituting a human-centered, and experimental interdisciplinary approach, offering entrepreneurs of any stripe a chance to deeply understand the people they’re looking to serve, and create innovative new solutions rooted in people’s actual needs, design thinking, specifically adapted for social enterprises, has been shown to be effective in building innovative organizations and creating social impact.

The Social UP project
That is where the Social UP project comes in. Its aim is to improve the social impact, sustainability and scalability of social enterprises for them to achieve their societal mission in a financially viable manner, by cultivating design thinking culture, well-adapted to their own needs.
The project, in cooperation with design thinking experts, social entrepreneurs and business advisers, co-designs, co-develops and co-implements a design thinking-based training material in the form of a “DT Field Guide for Social Enterprises", providing the necessary knowledge and tools to support and motivate design thinking within social enterprises in order for them to grow, scale–up and prosper. More under RESULTS

Project objectives and innovation twist
More specifically, the project aims to:

  • Raise awareness about the value of nurturing design thinking culture in building innovative organizations
  • Enable social entrepreneurs to act as in-company design thinking facilitators and make use of the design thinking approach in view of creating and establishing sustainable business models with a proven concept
  • Upskill and enable design thinking experts, VET trainers and advisers of social enterprises to motivate innovation and design thinking to social enterprises, expanding their services
  • Cultivate entrepreneurial spirit and competences for social entrepreneurs
  • Broaden the horizons of the target learners to experience other innovative design thinking-led approaches, such as gamification.

The project serves up and spurs innovation in many ways. In particular, it:

  • Addresses a topic in a way that has not been done previously at EU level and through an EU project
  • Adopts the DT approach in its own implementation, as it is built based on the 3 key DT phases: inspiration, ideation, implementation
  • Delivers to target learners through an innovative approach, spurring α mindset rather than techniques, drawing upon the “how to think and not what to think” attitude
  • Complements and connects rather than replacing the existing thought processes, acting as an enabler of changing perspective while managing a holistic approach
  • Develops a model transferable in different settings  and sectors

Project target groups
The project targets mainly:

  • Social entrepreneurs and wantrepreneurs
  • Design thinking experts and practitioners
  • Business advisers, including advisers of social entreprises
  • VET trainers

It also targets social sector-related authorities and institutions, social partners, policy makers, members of the design thinking community including academics and researchers and the society as a whole.
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