People, places, cracks and light

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

Introduction to social innovation by Leonard Cohen

There is a widely known song from Leonard Cohen, his “Anthem”, whose hook allegedly refers to a parable told by Jack Kornfield:

A young man who had lost his leg came to a Buddhist monastery, and he was extremely angry at life, always drawing pictures of cracked vases and damaged things, because he felt damaged. Over time, he found inner peace, and changed his outlook, but still drew broken vases. His master asked him one day: “Why do you still draw a crack in the vases you draw, are you not whole?” And he replied: “yes, and so are the vases. The crack is how the light gets in.”

And how does this song, how does this parable relate to social innovation? That was the challenge Robert Lukesch, SIMRA partner from ÖAR GmbH took up at the International Workshop on “Social Innovation in Public Policies” organised by the Secretariat of Social Coordination of the Brazilian Presidency (Brasilia, 7-9 March 2018).

luk_lauren1Cohen’s song is a wholesale abdication on definite solutions. It says nothing less than “You will not make it but you have to try it”: “You can add up the parts, but you won’t have the sum […] forget your perfect offering.” In a recent study regarding the planetary ecological boundaries and the overall quality of life, the University of Leeds/UK has come to the sobering conclusion that there is no single country on earth which meets the minimum requirements of human wellbeing without transgressing the planetary boundaries (ecological footprint) or, vice-versa, no single country which meets the requirements of sustainability without failing to meet the minimum requirements of social and economic well-being. There is simply no model in sight for humankind to escape that double bind.

Taking a territorial perspective in his presentation, Robert Lukesch explained that social innovation is usually described at a micro-scale, but it is the value compass at macro level which gives social innovation a meaning. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (Agenda 2030) provide useful pointers for instance. To illustrate the role of governance in fostering social innovation, he explained how Community-Led Local Development (CLLD) was implemented at the EU governance level. His take-away messages emphasized how social innovation is a key driver for local and regional development and prevents place-based approaches from self-indulgent identity discourse. He also highlighted the importance of diversity through multiple small actions with a (possibly loose) defined common purpose.

Social innovation in public policies – in Brazil and worldwide

The Secretariat of Government of the Presidency of the Republic organizing the event considers that although Brazil has evolved in recent years, the level of human development is still not satisfactory, and it faces substantial challenges, many of which aim at attending the demands of society, especially the poor groups. The Federal Government has in the past developed and coordinated a set of public policies with a design and management pattern based on a “supply model” and on a permanent expansion of expenditures which is now draining in face of the current conditions. On the other hand, the successive governments in Brazil persist in developing many of their initiatives without considering the participation of agents related to most territories and institutional arrangements in the design and management of their programs, considering the differences between these spaces and stimulating social participation. Social Innovation presents itself as a strategy that enables the qualitative and quantitative expansion of citizens well-being, promoting human development and transforming the social context considering the particular needs and potential of places and regions.

luk_lauren2Thus, the federal government has the responsibility of evaluating and rethinking both the financing pattern and the strategies for the design, development and management of public policies, aiming at greater efficiency and efficacy. In these difficult times in terms of economy and policy, the Secretariat of Social Coordination wanted to lay the foundations for a future programme fostering social innovation in Brazil. After a thorough analysis of the needs and the inventory of the existing programmes and schemes at the Federal, States and Municipal level aiming at improving social cohesion and well-being in Brazil, the Secretariat organized an international workshop on this topic in order to assess the state of the art in governance interventions on social innovation.

After the opening ceremony led by the Brazilian Secretary of Government, international contributors and national representatives (from public institutions, socio-professional groups, civil society and education organizations etc.) held presentations, with vivid participation from the floor. International, national and local aspects of social innovations were raised. Specific emphasis was laid on three policy fields: social policies, education and local/regional development.

Apart from the general uncertainties due to the economic and political crisis (the country is already bracing for Presidential, Congress and State Governor elections in fall), one of the most important deficiencies is the fragmentation of policies which are designed and delivered from top down in “stovepipes”. Coordination is lacking at all levels.

On March 9th,2018 a smaller workshop was held with a reduced number of international and national participants in order to gather additional ideas on a capacity building programme for social innovation agents which is in the design phase at present.

For more information

  • The presentation given by Robert Lukesch, click here.
  • His written paper for the conference reader, click here.
  • The conceptual note of the conference laying out the aims and purposes of the event, click here.


Robert Lukesch (ÖAR)
Robert Lukesch (ÖAR)
Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)
Lauren Mosdale (Euromontana)

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