Social Innovation in Bilbao - Maeve Monaghan

Social Innovation in Bilbao - Maeve Monaghan

28 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 Maeve Monaghan about her time in the Basque Country:

I’ve been on a number of study visits over the years and none have piqued my interest as much as my trip to Bilbao.

There are two main reasons why this one has worked and the others have not. Firstly Gorka Espiau from The Agirre Centre and The Young Foundation is the perfect connector, with a great sense for who needs to speak to whom.

The trip felt relaxed but every meeting was strategic, thought through and relevant. This really helped to justify the investment by the Building Change Trust and for myself, taking three days out of my usual working week.

Secondly there are unarguable similarities between the journey The Basque region and NI have been on. Surely we can see beyond the obvious links with one side of our community and value the learning from how they have turned their situation around?

Starting Point

During an energetic presentation from the previous President Juan Jose Ibarretxe we learned that when things had got as bad as they could, with a background of ongoing violence, the Basque people decided that if things were going to change it needed to be “all together or not at all”. This is such a simple starting point but one that we in Northern Ireland seem to have sidestepped.

Overall there is a feeling that the country agreed communally to rebrand and create an image everyone could buy into.

The next visit was to a cooperative in Mondragon, which is really a self-contained large town built on the side of a mountain 45 minutes outside Bilbao. It includes their own bank, which is one of the top performing banks in Spain, two universities, a hospital and four factories.

We were told: “Once we opened we realised we would have to look after ourselves so within two years we set up our own credit union, pension scheme, medical insurance, hospital and retirement plan".

Cooperative Thinking

Employee benefits are very important to Mondragon and they have an agreement that there will never be more than nine times difference between lowest and highest salary. The high average wage and fact that the cooperative model staff own the company leads to them feeling a part of the solution.

This visit interested me because of their experience of scaling social enterprise. I have had conversations before with social entrepreneurs about scalability and the link to manufacturing.

Could this model work in partnership with Mondragon to kick start industry and tackle high level of unemployment in our most divided communities?

Could those communities work together in a business they owned together?

To discuss these ideas further please leave a comment below.

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