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Social innovation in Spain

Social innovation in Spain

Here we go. After an amazing launching evening at the Parisian Hyatt Regency Hotel, we are now hitting the roads of social innovation in Europe. The idea behind this series of articles is to make you discover the countries we will travel to through the prism of social innovation. In this way, we will present to you those who build the Europe of tomorrow, a Europe that we want desirable, sustainable and meaningful.

In this first post, I will present to you the Spanish organisations and Changemakers. Spain, which was badly hit by the crisis (52, 3% youth unemployment in 2014, social inequalities that increase with one Spanish out of five living below the poverty threshold, etc) tries, with its assets and its specificities, to answer to the issues of our time.

Social innovation Spain - Europe Tomorrow
Social innovation in Spain - Europe Tomorrow

Barcelona – From an industrial city to a Smart city…and finally to a Fab City: 

1st step: Barcelona. Better known as a regular tourist destination, particularly for its beaches, its nightlife and its tapas, Gaudi and Picasso’s city also became one of the most impressive smart city in Europe. Under the initiative of projects such as 22@Barcelona (in the Poblenou neighbourhood), the city gradually shifted from a status of “former industrial town” to the one of “new creative city”. Although it has seen a considerable success, its critics say it is still too techno-centred, that it is targeting a well off audience and has a tendency to gentrify its neighbourhoods.

With the persistence of the crisis and following the citizen’s reappropriation, several organisations wanted to give back the power of technology to its inhabitants (to refocuse it on the social and environmental development of the city). Before that, the inhabitants of Barcelona had to answer two questions:

How to insure a collective reappropriation of technologies in order to turn them into tools to serve the re-industrialisation and the social and ecological development of the city. (Diez, 2012)

How can technological innovations enable to change the model of the city and move from the traditional PITO model (« Product in, Trash out »), to the DIDO model (« Data in, Data out »), where the waste would be thought of as a resource for the functioning of cities?

The Fab Labs’ digital machines (3D printers, laser cutters, vinyls cutters, numerical drilling machines, etc) present the benefit of being easily appropriable by the city dwellers and therefore constitute a part of the answer to these two questions. In addition, the 3D models published on the open source Fab Labs’ network make it easier to design projects.

Thus, more than 40 FabLabs emerged from Barcelona Smart City such as the FabLab House, an ecological house with solar energy or the Citilab Cornellà, a social innovation centre. Among them, one of the most impressive we visited is without doubt the Green Fab Lab | IAAC in Valldaura. It is located in the natural park of Collserola. Welcomed by its principal resident, Jonathan Minchin, we had the pleasure to discover a place where all the basic life necessities are produced in the simplest and most efficient way possible. Indeed, this FabLab produces food, energy and industrial tools using local resources while based on world’s enhanced knowledge.

Social innovation in Spain - Europe Tomorrow

Madrid – social entrepreneurship & green economy :


Madrid, the Spanish capital city, abounds in creativity. The Medialab Prado, an innovative laboratory dedicated to new forms of collaborative productions proves it. A step away from it, the Impact Hub of Madrid, a shared work space dedicated to social innovation, is also a key location to meet the local ecosystem.

On the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the venue, we had the pleasure to meet a large number of social entrepreneurs and eco-entrepreneurs. Among them, we can mention the following networks: Greenbiz, Incubaeco and Premios Emprendedores. One of the founders of these networks we met during the « Caña Social » of Socialemprende, Fernando Rudio, also presented to us a incubation and acceleration programme for the social entrepreneurs in the city of Soria, El Hueco. Finally, it is important to note that the Biodiversidad Foundation and the Red Emprendeverde are precious local resources over there.

Unemployment is one if the most persistent issue in Spain, especially since the crisis in 2008. In 2014, the unemployment rate reached 25.8% of the population with a 54.6% youth unemployment rate. Paradoxically and even though the country has one f the lowest business creation in Europe, Ashoka tells us that Spain is the country with the most Fellows among the most in debt countries.

As regards the fight against unemployment, the work of the « Fellow Ashoka » José Maria Perez « Peredis », is remarquable. His foundation, Santa Aria la Real, works for the professional integration of unemployed people including thanks to “Lanzaderas de Empleo”. These “employment shuttles” represent a new methodology of social intervention. It suggests a change in the approach and the treatment of the labour market policies developed until now. Assisted by coaches, the job seekers work in a team and in a proactive manner which fosters action. While the programme continues, the job seekers regain their self-confidence and realise they are capable and competent.

Just like in France, the social and solidarity economy is well developed in Spain and appears like a credible alternative to the traditional economy. Spain has very big cooperatives such as Mondragón Corporation in the Basque country, Almería Agricultural Cooperative in Andalusia or the Fageda Cooperative in Catalonia.

In order to help the social entrepreneurs develop their projects, investment funds also exist as evidenced by CREAS. In addition, we count a high number of foundations such as Foundation Telefonica, the Bankinter foundation or the REPSOL foundation. Finally, Spain also has one of the most performant crowdfunding platform in Europe called Goteo. Financial investors but also advice in development, all these bodies are impossible to avoid during the change in scale stage.

Social innovation in Spain - Europe Tomorrow

Andalusia – renewable energies and housing cooperative :

After Madrid, we stopped in Tarifa. Also called the windy city, it is known for its surf spots. The wind is also a great source of energy for the region. It is quite impressive to notice that windmills cover the mountains and the plains as we get closer to the Mediterranean.

In terms of energy, Spain took significant measures in order to diversify its mix and use its renewable energies in the best way possible. In 2013, the production of renewable energy even was the main supplier of the country’s energy production. With 21.1 % of the State’s production, the wind energy production is the first source of primary energy just after nuclear energy (21 %). Hydraulic energy and solar energy respectively account for 14.4 % and 3.1 % of the State’s production. Unfortunately, these figures are to be put into perspective since they only represent the State’s production. Yet,DSC_0943 - copie the later imports up to 75.8 % of its energy (mostly hydrocarbons).

From Tarifa, we had the pleasure to spend a few days in an eco-village called « El Molino de Guadalmessi », a haven of peace in the strait’s natural park. This place is a representative example of what can be found in the international eco-villages network and more specifically in the Iberian eco-places network (RED) has eco-built houses, a permaculture garden, grazing animals and, most of all, a very warm community.

We have been fortunate enough to interview and receive training from Johnny Azpilicueta about the philosophy of an eco-village, the operating principles of a community and a working methodology for the organisations called Dragon Dreaming. Johnny, with the help of his wife, is the creator of the eco-village. He is also one of the founders of the ecocenter in Tarifa, holistic training centre where can be ate products from organic production and undertake numerous trainings about personal development.

Sleeping in eco-built houses was the opportunity for us to study habitat in Spain. After the speculation bubble and a housing crisis due to a massive overbuilding of the country (because of promoters’ desire for profit and corrupted elected officials), Spain slowed down its property expansion. Even though the speculation bubble is setting off again, innovations however emerged. Indeed, within the context of persevering economic crisis, of citizens’ protests from the indignant movement in Madrid and the dazzling ascension of the Podemos political party, some laboratorios cuidadanos emerged. Apart from the creative spaces cited above, we can mention the inhabitants of the La Latina neighbourhood in Madrid self-managed space, the Campo de La Cebada or the one in Lavapiés called La Tabacalera and which is a former tobacco factory. More “institutionalised” spaces also exist such as a habitat cooperative called « cooperativa de uso de vivienda ». The collective housing case Entrepatios in Madrid is well documented and associations like the Sostrecivic movement or the Andalusian association Aunacovi are their first promoters.


Seville is certainly the city with the most history in the whole of Europe. Apart from its millennium buildings, Seville also has numerous little squares full of surprises. While walking around, we can discover a lovely self-managed shared garden called el Huerto Urbano del Rey Moro. It is also a city that has an affinity for social innovation including thanks to its foundation Xul. Finally, cities such as Malaga, Cordoba and Granada are not left behind since they have networks like the Innoves foundation, Innobas, Cordoba Social Lab, or the IDUN movement or Cajasur Foundation.

The Basque Country – Social Economy and Social innovation :

Social innovation in Spain - Europe Tomorrow

First region in terms of economic weight and having overstepped Madrid, the Basque Country is an expanding territory. Upon arrival, we were lucky to meet actors of the Social Innovation Park (SIP), a real silicon valley for social innovation thanks to the development of serious game and simulation technologies. These ones developed numerous projects, some of which have a European ambition. We can mention the Dialogue programme whose purpose is to demonstrate that social and cultural diversity is a competitive advantage to implement self entrepreneurship and develop social innovation in Europe. Indeed, at a time when there is much debate on migrants who arrive on European shores, it is time to show that immigration can play a key role in increasing EU competitiveness. The Transition Project is another European programme that last 30 months and whose mission is to scale-up European social innovations by developing a network of six incubators including the Social Innovation Park.

IMG_0020We were especially impressed by the NER Group network (Nuevo Estilo de Relaciones), network of businesses which want to establish a new culture based on a fair and sustainable human development. In order to reach its goal, each business part of the network, thirty in total, pay 2.5 % of their turnover and 2 % of the time of their employees for joint projects of general interest. That is how two organic farms of two hectares each, Lur Denok SL, three distribution centres, Hurbilekojalea, a solidarity fund between businesses or a cooperative bank for businesses (Kutxa) were developed. The network recently invested in a mollusc farm using the principles of the circular economy, Breen.

We were then greeted by Innobasque, an innovation development agency in the Basque country including social innovation, eco-innovation and participative innovation. This requires from the agency a transversal and interdisciplinary work which involves public institutions, businesses and civil society. After diagnosing a series of issues, the agency proposes a white paper suggesting new forms of social innovations in public policies. It is the case of the one carried out on the ageing population and on the development of the Silver Economy in the Basque Country (the third most ageing region in the world).

The last innovation we came across, Mondragon Team Academy (MTA) is an organisation that trains teams of students to become business people. It uses a methodology developed by the Academy and whose concept comes from Finland. This one consists in creating an environment conducive to entrepreneurship thanks to peer to peer learning techniques and learning by doing. All this is completed by a theoretical learning and study trips.

To conclude, we were pleasantly surprised by the development of social entrepreneurship and social innovation in Spain. The fact that Autonomous Communities have a strong independence enabled to spread innovations on the territory. Coming from a « Jacobin » country, this decentralisation appeared to us like a strength but it would possibly gain from breaking down the partitions. In every sector, Spain has innovations that could help answer issues of our time. Nevertheless, in order to durably impact the Spanish society, these innovations have to influence the country’s policies, transform big companies but also, in order to be truly durable, the European laws and the international fora.

Boris Marcel from Europe Tomorrow

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