Sustainability Means Thinking Systemically: “inputs” and “outputs” for social innovation and anthropology in Colombia

“Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry”
Bill Drayton (Ashoka Founder)

Winner of Latinomics Scholarship to attend the Diplomado Latinomics in Vienna September 2015

By Lorena Gómez Ramírez, Colombia,


This paper became my excuse to explore the social innovation scene in Colombia and I must

 Lorena Gómez Ramírez Colombia E-mail:

Lorena Gómez Ramírez

say it has been quite astonishing. As an anthropologist I see the opportunities this new approach can bring to our country not only in term of social start-ups, but also as a change of paradigm once we are all able to ask different questions about old problems. Making people become agents of their own problem-solving is a way of recognizing their analysis capacities and local knowledge which, together with external technical support, give an important self-esteem message and context-based solutions. The latter in a historical moment when Colombians need to train on how to relate with each other by building trust, something that can only be achieved through new ways of looking at reality and listening to other voices.

To be honest, it is surprising to meet “Social Innovation” until this point of my life. Even though I recently got my undergraduate degree, I had never had the opportunity to approach the topic nor from academy or from civil organizations where I have worked before. Whatever the explanation is, it is true that there is a gap on teaching social innovation within students and the Colombian society in general; people hear the term but do not know what it actually means.

In Colombia, the National Agency for the Overcoming of Extreme Poverty (ANSPE) is in charge of promoting Social Innovation as a government strategy to eradicate poverty by generating jobs and creating alternatives that bring the State’s social services to people in a more efficient and relevant way. This is why the ANSPE counts on its Center for Social Innovation (CSI), which pursues several tasks in order to make social innovation possible: create alliances to get funds, generate favorable conditions for it to be developed in extreme poverty contexts, manage knowledge and good models on the topic, while also promoting and spreading social innovation at a national level.

In 2012 the CSI built up a diagnosis on social innovation in the country and found out that we were missing a platform where start-ups stakeholders could meet and where innovators could get support throughout the different stages of their initiatives. This is how the center came to the conclusion that there were a series of steps to be followed in order to start organizing the social start-ups ecosystem. First, start-ups working on poverty solutions in the different regions had to be identified, and secondly, their paths, achievements and lessons had to be written down in order to create a database platform; thirdly, there was an urge for generating face-to-face and/or virtual meetings between social innovators, academy, public and private institutions -at both, national and international levels- where results, knowledge, good practices and networking could be done. This would promote cooperation within the ecosystem and display the social innovation sector to the public at the same time[1].

After multiple-stakeholders workshops organized by the CSI they saw “[…] there was an evident lacking of significant social innovation models and scarce visibility of initiatives that are relevant for our society.” (Center for Social Innovation, 2014). As a response to this situation, the CSI launched the “Hilando” project. Since 2012 and on, Hilando has done a call for the selection and geo-referencing of social start-ups in Colombia -35 have already been chosen until now-, while becoming a web platform that aims to facilitate the encounter between innovators and international social innovation experts. In addition to this, innovators can also access a “Service Guide” where they can find recommendations and institutions for their inquiries, ideas or contributions. This is how the social innovation start-up ecosystem looks like in Colombia.

After giving a look to all this research I wondered: what can my potential contribution be to this scenario? I started thinking about my surroundings, on the gaps that need to be fulfilled in my community; then my initial astonishment became a proposal. In Colombia and globally, social sciences can have an enormous impact if placed in the proper place, and that means next to people. In other words, it is important for governments to realize that these professionals who know how to work together with communities and make a connection with them are actually the “grounding” of public policies and programs: they become the State’s faces people look at and interact with. Plus they become a mutual comprehension bridge between people and institutions.

In order to explain my proposal I will be very outspoken about an issue we have at the Anthropology Department of the University of the Andes. I also want to mention that three friends and I worked very hard on it until we graduated, so now it is comforting to see there is a chance to move forward on the topic.

Anthropology undergraduate students in my university lack of fieldwork opportunities which are vital for their education. It is a challenge we have been trying to face since four generations ago; this has been an accumulation of efforts that gave rise to the “Fieldwork Student Group” which still exists today. However, in spite of the group’s initiatives there is a shared concern between student and experienced anthropologists about the training and abilities these social scientists will have once they get into the job market. In fact, most of students do not have a clear professional projection given that they are not well introduced into the contemporary contexts where the discipline contributes nowadays.

Students tend to prefer choosing an internship rather than writing their thesis in order to graduate –including myself. This would not be a problem except for the fact that when they do so, most of the times they end up in organizations that do not know what an anthropologist can do and ask them to do only logistical duties: what a loss of potential. When something like this happens internships become disturbing instead of being inspiring. Hence the importance of showing them new horizons through social innovation, specially taking into account that it is a perspective the Colombian government is looking forward to apply in the future in its own management.

Since social innovation can help to give students a professional orientation, my proposal consists on generating an agreement between the CSI and the University of the Andes’ Social Sciences Faculty that creates internship opportunities assisting regional start-ups the CSI supports, and which at the same time summonses the CSI to give a “Social Innovation Seminar” at school. The Center is currently working with the Architecture and Design Faculties of a number of universities including ours, but there are no links with any Colombian Social Sciences Faculties. In a certain way this explains why social innovation has not been visible to other disciplines where interesting synergies could emerge.

Not only would the “Social Innovation Seminar” contribute to one of the CSI objectives by “Generating alliances with education centers in order to promote theory and practical knowledge on Social Innovation and its’ study from different disciplines.” (ANSPE- Center for Social Innovation, 2014), but would also make possible a creative educational opportunity in which national issues can be studied with the use of international methodologies from interdisciplinary and technological applied perspectives.

Additionally, the seminar could count with the participation of two important guests of the social innovation start-ups scene. On the one hand, the first guest would be Impact Hub Bogota, the first place in the city designed to be a meeting and incubation point for social innovators which belongs to a network of 7.000 members in 40 different locations in 5 continents. On the other hand, I would suggest inviting Pedro Medina, mentor of the “I Believe in Colombia” organization (IBC) which continuously looks for “hidden assets” of the country –“everything that is valuable but people do not see”-, supports creative ideas and does research on Colombia’s positive stories. By teaching techniques for speaking in public, on how to “break the ice” between two strangers, and how to tell stories that generate empathy with other people, IBC would offer the complementary elements any innovator needs.

Now, receiving interns at the CSI can be very promising. Further than helping social innovation to become more popular, these interns can support the elaboration of quantitative and qualitative reports[2]; the research of other national and international experiences that can be helpful to the projects; and do the documentation, monitoring and feedback for the each local community and for the CSI of course. These students can even be asked to suggest ways to measure the start-ups impacts in different scales given that according to the CSI, showing results is crucial when looking for sponsors.

So that is my proposal. It consists on creating an education and training system towards social innovation in Colombia. Both sides give inputs; both of them get outputs too. It is a partnership that can last in time and offer certainty to those who are involved in an ecosystem that needs to become more visible through action.


Alsema, A. (2012, November 13). Colombia Reports. Retrieved July 2015, 06, from

ANSPE- Center for Social Innovation. (2014). Center for Social Innovation Brochure. Retrieved July 04, 2015, from

Center for Social Innovation. (2014). Innovation of the Overcoming of Social Poverty: the Hilando experience. Retrieved July 05, 2015, from

Departamento Nacional de Planeación; Colciencias; ANSPE. (2013). Memorias del Seminario Talle: Retos para la Innovación Social en Colombia. Bogota.

Dinero Magazine. (2014, October 06). Colombia StartUp 2015. Retrieved from

Dirección de Innovación Social. (2015, abril). Unidos Innovando Vol. 7. Bogotá, Colombia.

Impact Hub Bogota. (n.d.). Impact Hub Bogota. Retrieved july 03, 2015, from

Medina, P. (2014). En Colombia es Necesario Innovar en los Vacíos. (ICETEX, Interviewer)

NESTA – Peter Baeck. (2015, February). NESTA. Retrieved July 02, 2015, from Data for Good: how big and open data can be used for the common good:

Westlake, S. (2015, March 04). NESTA. Retrieved July 205, 02, from


[1] The CSI has created communication channels for people to participate in the Social Innovation Public Policy design. (Departamento Nacional de Planeación; Colciencias; ANSPE, 2013)

[2] In the case of anthropologists these reports would include useful ethnographic conclusions that help understand each start-up from a cultural and daily life point of view.

Workshop Internacional – Ecología y Sustentabilidad


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