A museum – usually a place associated with dead, old artefacts – is not the setting that comes to mind when you think of a venue for events revolving around innovation, entrepreneurship and social impact. On 15 October, however, a Viennese museum – the MAK (Museum für Angewandte Kunst) – hosted just that: An event that brought together more than 300 practitioners, innovators and stakeholders from a wide variety of fields and sectors to discuss ways to best advance social change.
Driven by the idea that true innovation, which can act as a catalyst for such change, cannot happen in isolation, the “Design for Impact” conference emphasised the importance of collective action and cross-sector collaboration. The event was hosted by Impact Hub Vienna and enabled by design>new strategies, a cooperation of MAK and departure. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management (Lebensministerium) was also onboard, among other partners.
“The idea behind ‘Design for Impact’ is to bring together like-minded social impact practitioners to facilitate collaboration, inspiration and motivation across different sectors”, Lena Gansterer, programme director at HUB Vienna Incubation and responsible for PR at Design for Impact told inventures.eu. “We want to create a spark that ignites fruitful interaction amongst the participants.”
And interact they did.
Hailing from more than 30 countries and with different occupational backgrounds – from civil society and politics, to business and the creative industries – the crowd that gathered outside the MAK this sunny fall afternoon was diverse, one might even say a bit chaotic. What brought them together, however, was a shared common focus: social impact.
Investing in social change
The desire to facilitate such positive social change is also what motivated Charly Kleissner, a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, to become a pioneer of impact investment. As a form of socially responsible investment that allocates capital based on social and ecological criteria, “impact investment not only provides positive returns, but also creates societal benefits,” he told inventures.eu.
Kleissner was only one among other renowned speakers that shared their knowledge in a variety of 30-minute meetings, part of the so-called “Project Space” sessions during the conference. While happy to present their own ideas, these practitioners were even more eager to hear from other participants and their experiences – in the collaborative atmosphere that characterised the whole conference. This drive towards openness was also reflected, in a spatial sense, in the setting of the workshops, as all sessions took place in the same big hall (in this case, good acoustics were sacrificed for the sake of symbolism, it seems).
Photo credit: STEFAN FUERTBAUER // PHOTOGRAPHY
Openness to different, even unconventional, approaches was also evident in Miha Pogačnik’s performances. A cultural ambassador of Slovenia, the concert violinist presented his approach to the conference – in the form of a musical performance. For him, “art can serve as a platform to overcome barriers and obstacles of corporate language” in order “to compose a positive social impact.”
Jonathan Robinson, co-founder of Impact Hub, sees achieving social impact as being closely related to turning conditions of crisis into opportunity. As an example, he provided some insights into the peace innovation labs he has been organising in Afghanistan to find, what he calls, “unlikely allies.”
Highlighting the added value of unlikely coalitions is also at the heart of Werner Wutscher’s work as a business angel and consultant, who tries to bridge the world of corporations and that of startups. In his talk, Wutscher identified a “huge potential for collaboration between these two worlds.” In order to navigate both of them successfully, however, “you need a translator, who understands the corporate as well as the startup world.”
In an effort to act as a “guide through the jungle of both worlds,” he approaches corporations and identifies areas in need of innovation and then finds startups that can help solve the corporation’s problems. “It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “The corporations receive innovation, and the startups are granted access to potential investors or clients.”
Spaces for more openness
Not only social entrepreneurs offered their ideas at “Design for Impact”, but also political practitioners, such as Caspar Einem, former Austrian minister and now Vice President of the European Forum Alpbach. In the session he led, Einem criticised that “in politics, there is never really an open discussion on what is needed.” That is why he has been working on creating safe space beyond public scrutiny to promote values of openness and respectfulness. This, he hopes, “will stimulate change in the political system.”
Bringing about social change on a broader scale was definitely at the centre of the “Design for Impact” conference – but to what extent can you really change the world in just one afternoon?
“I know one afternoon is not a lot of time,” Gansterer laughed. “We just hope that this gathering can help generate output that can eventually be applied across different sectors to promote social change,” she told inventures.eu.
To this end, participants gathered in small groups as part of the “System Redesign Workshop” to discern common patterns underlying the afternoon sessions. In the end, specific principles of “Design for Impact” were presented, ranging from cross-sector engagement, a redefinition of coworking and investment norms, to group knowledge and collaboration, as well as measurements to scale social impact.
If the sound level in the hall was any indication of the creative energies flowing around that afternoon, then a lot was achieved at “Design for Impact” – and not just because the museum usually houses still, inanimate objects.