Social Innovation in Bilbao - John Peto

Social Innovation in Bilbao - John Peto

29 January 2015

A delegation from Northern Ireland recently travelled to the Basque Country as the guests of the Agirre Lehendakaria Centre to learn about Social Innovation, Digital Fabrication and the Basque Economic Transformation.

The delegation, including representatives of FabLabNI, LEDCOMM, the Ashton Centre and Building Change Trust, was supported by SEUPB and Building Change Trust.

In this blog we hear from Trust Director John Peto about his time in the Basque Country:

It seems hard to escape Social Innovation in the Community and Voluntary Sector of late – the term crops up in funding calls, newly minted policy documents, sectoral research and now in the final agreed Stormont Budget for 2015-16.

Mention of the term is often greeted with knowing looks and earnest nods but precise detail and exemplar can be hard to come by. For this reason, and others, I was fortunate enough to visit the Basque Country last week to look at what are regarded as some of the finest exemplars of Social Innovation in the world.

Over the last 30 years the Basque economy has recovered from a conflict impacted, high unemployment context, based on an outmoded model of heavy manufacturing and neo liberal political leadership (sound familiar?), to become one with the second highest GDP in Europe and ranked third on the global Human Development Index.

This transformation is remarkable not just in monetary terms but because of the Sustainable Human Development ethos which has driven it. This ethos has seen economic re-invention powered by co-operation and innovation between industry, government, education and community – working in real and meaningful partnership to create shared benefits not just in terms of money but in public service delivery, welfare rights, inclusion and social integration.

In this model, 90% of GDP is created by indigenous industry, often innovating in ultra-modern manufacturing and engineering. There is no pressure or desire to attract or incentivise Foreign Direct Investors, who may have little stake in the place. Additionally, 12% of GDP is produced by the Social Economy - it is a key plank in terms of employment and productivity.

In terms of our visit, it was not the ‘how’ of the transformation that was of interest so much as what it actually looks like on the ground. How does this integration of business, government, education and community actually look and feel, and how does it drive innovation?

A visit to Ixo Group (, who run a string of multi-Michelin starred restaurants, showed graphically just how Social Innovation can become embedded within a very successful private enterprise, and can deliver real business benefits at the very highest level of excellence.

Adding a social dimension to their work in training cooks, managers and food producers  from non-traditional backgrounds is supporting the growth of Ixo into new areas such as product development, education, supply chain and new markets, as well as providing finance to enable this. All in addition to a tangible social impact in terms of inclusion, employment, skills and public health.

Urbegi were instructive in demonstrating how familiar social models, such as developing workforces from excluded or marginalized sections of the community, have been scaled up in the Basque Region to significant levels (over 400 employees).

This business had initially been based on a traditional low/mid skilled manufacturing model but is now starting to develop new capacities around product design and digital technologies and is taking the upskilling of disabled and excluded workers into the digital age whilst delivering real profits as a social enterprise.

The inspiration for much of this Social Innovation has been the mighty Mondragon – a worker owned co-operative which has grown to become one of Spain’s largest companies, employing almost 75,000 people.

Founded in 1956, Mondragon is a model of integrated enterprise, with a family of companies serviced by its own University, producing skilled graduates across its range of activities.

A new initiative here is the Mondragon Team Academy (MTA) – a hugely disruptive model which sees learners dispense with formal lectures and exams in favour of setting up their own  commercial co-operatives and developing them as real world businesses.

(There’s nothing quite like meeting a group of Undergraduates who are turning over €60k a year as part of their degree course to make you feel old…)

MTA really served to illustrate the core value of the Basque transformation – continual innovation backed by a Government willing to take risks and driven by a Community and a Business Sector that relate strongly to each other as integrated partners rather than separate entities.

There is much to learn and much to be inspired by in the Basque transformation. There is real potential for Northern Ireland to take a leadership role in exploring it.

Our Community and Voluntary Sector is well developed, well networked and well organized, with good links to Government and increasing links with Business. With the correct support in place from Building Change Trust and others, Northern Ireland can really become a region that walks the talk on Social Innovation. Lets make it happen.


Click here to read about fellow Trust Director Maeve Monaghan's experiences on the trip. 


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