#15, December 2023


The city, an influential social innovator

Photo : Courtoisie Miquel de Paladella

How do we respond to today’s social issues? For Miquel de Paladella, it’s a matter of mobilizing multiple players who are capable of generating lasting change. At UpSocial, the Barcelona-based organization he founded and leads, his team tackles the complexity of the social challenges facing European cities. Miquel de Paladella calls on us to transcend the need for instantaneous solutions revealing the deep-seated causes of problems. Raccords spoke with him to find out more about his approach to social innovation with cities.

Interview with Miquel de Paladella, founder and CEO of UpSocial

Raccords: UpSocial uses systemic innovations to address complex social challenges with city stakeholders across Europe. What inspired you to co-found the organization thirteen years ago?

Miquel de Paladella: UpSocial was founded in Barcelona out of a need to understand social challenges in depth and the systemic nature of what we call ‘wicked’ problems—social problems that are badly defined, chronic, and without obvious solutions. Though we’re seeing more and more amazing innovations, we found that most tackle the symptoms of social problems rather than their root causes. Some innovations provide some short-term relief for governments and communities, but they often lack a systemic approach, rigorous evidence and are difficult to scale up. The issue, we find, isn’t normally a lack of data, but rather the lack of a capacity to interrogate it and to connect it across systems: employment, health, education.

I remember a project we worked on in the southern part of Senegal. The challenge was how to make girls complete their secondary education. When we started talking to the parents, the girls, the teachers, the local authorities, and so on, we realized that these girls saw no relevance in going to school and following the curriculum. Here, as we do in most of our cases, we ended up changing the client’s original question. The issue wasn’t about finishing secondary education. It was: How can we make education create significant opportunities for a decent life for these girls? From there, and through a deep analysis of the underlying structures and mental models that exist in Senegal, the solutions started to become evident. They actually existed somewhere else (in this case, in Paraguay), and the challenge was to adapt them.

Over the course of various projects in Europe, Latin America, and North America, as well as (to a lesser degree) Africa, we’ve adapted and developed methodologies and processes to address social issues by digging deep into them, understanding systemic causes and levers of change, searching for existing proven solutions, and deploying them by focusing on their active ingredients.

Raccords: Rather than embracing a culture of social innovation, governments have tended to gravitate to quick fixes. Another challenge is that regional realities differ from place to place, particularly in a large territory like Europe. How do you adapt and scale up an innovation when you may not have close knowledge of conditions on the ground?

Miquel de Paladella: This is a key question. Addressing the problem in countries the size of Canada, where you have 40 million people, or Spain, where we have 48 million, is impossible. Local systems in cities are easier to understand and experiment with, and they can unlock a system at the national level.

We work mainly with local governments, because they have a perspective that is perfect for analyzing a system—for understanding power relations, resource flows, existing mental models, and underlying structures. However, there is a lot of pedagogy needed, and we need to maintain the sense of urgency, and work within timeframes that allow us to focus and measure what really matters.

When a city contracts with us, they usually don’t have a clear idea of what the problem is. We start analyzing the data and posing questions. This is when we explore different framings to a problem. To better understand how the system works, we engage citizens and stakeholders and dive deep into their explicit, but also latent needs. When we add more value is when the client understands the value of a preventative mindset. Trying to ascertain when it’s the right moment to intervene is often an innovation in itself that creates a foundation for exploring lasting and scalable solutions.

Raccords: When working with a city’s stakeholders, what are the winning conditions for creating a scalable innovation?

Miquel de Paladella:  The lessons we have learned point towards the need to transform need into demand for innovation, making the stakeholders more capable of understanding how a system operates. We convene the different actors to learn about data, the power relations that exist, the resource flows, how they are measured, what incentives exist, what the purpose of the system is, etc. This helps us get the right knowledge to design a pilot based on proven innovation: It allows the hypotheses to be made explicit so that they can be tested. We target the knowledge and evidence that we need to generate we through the pilot..

Another key element is identifying the active ingredients of every innovation. There are three to six key ingredients—we call them “non negotiables”—that make an innovation successful. Understanding them allows us to adapt and adopt them in different contexts.

And finally, we don’t do a pilot unless there is a legacy explicitly designed for it. What are you going to do with this knowledge? Will you make it part of your public policy? Will you adopt it, if it’s successful, into your portfolio of services? We do experiments on the basis of what can be scaled up afterwards to produce local or regional policy.

Raccords: From your experience, what can obstruct or, alternately, promote innovation within a public institution?

Miquel de Paladella: Ambition, we’ve found, can be both an obstacle and a facilitator. It’s an obstacle at the beginning, but it becomes a facilitator at scale because grandiloquence activates the white cells of a system to protect the status quo. Your objectives can’t be seen as threatening by the spheres of power. If you go in with a message of systems change, you’re done! But without ambition, one won’t go anywhere either. The key is to have a”non-threatening ambition” based on collaborative approaches, empathy, and radical transparency.

In Colombia, for example, we were engaged in a project called SIBs.Co to test a payment-for-success contract model. Our goal was to facilitate employment, for women and others who struggle to find it, through training, intermediation, and mentoring. Instead of fighting against the institution that focused on training to facilitate employability, we invited that institution to join us in seeking employment retention, as an expansion of what they were doing. An initiative that changed the way it measured success, in seven years, has managed to change the very purpose of the Ministry and the employment system around it. A focus on outcomes such as actual employment and its retention has changed the way the system operates, analyses data, discusses how it needs to improve, coordinates itself, and expands its portfolio of services.

This is an example of how changing the purpose might be the most powerful way to change a system.

Raccords: You’ve distinguished between the need for innovation and the demand for it. What is the difference, and how do you transform one into the other?

Miquel de Paladella: Yes, we very often find ourselves interacting with institutions and organizations that have a latent need for innovation, but this need is not explicitly to engage it in exploring and experimenting with new approaches. Systematic failure drives organizations towards incremental improvements and small victories. An explicit demand would engage the organization in a deeper analysis of why the solution does not clearly emerge, why the problem is not well understood.

An example is how Spain reacts to the OECD PISA reports on education. The report documents how 25% of Spanish students fail to achieve the very basic level of math that would make them employable. This has not improved in 20 years of PISA reports. But the country has not really been exploring the nature of the problem. It has changed laws and curriculum, but it has not engaged into experimenting with innovative approaches.

With the pandemic, and the report that is to be presented shortly, the number of students failing might represent a third of the total population. This can become an opportunity. Systemic opportunities happen when data appears that wasn’t previously there, and there’s a collective realization from the bottom up that we can’t continue doing the same thing.

Photo: Courtesy Miquel de Paladella

A crisis might create a systemic opportunity. But transforming need into demand generally requires making all levels of the organization aware of the challenge and of possible alternatives. We have experimented with ‘content marketing,’ a strategy to make your clients aware and have better information and approaches to the problem, so that they discover the need, make it explicit, and transform it into demand for innovation. We also did it with teachers: We engaged in a campaign to help teachers see that it was not normal to see 25% of children ‘vegetating’ in the math class every day, and we showed them techniques to re-engage them, whatever the age group. This is how the Canadian innovation JUMP Math started growing: by making teachers aware that there was a different approach, changing the narrative and showing hints of the solution, they started demanding innovation.

The other means of transformation is to engineer a kind of tipping point. A group of people started publicizing the fact that the country was losing teachers because they were seen as irrelevant. This meant that trade unions were losing many members. Moving from the agenda of defending workers’ rights and teachers’ rights to decreasing the number of hours, decreasing the curriculum, and changing our thinking about pedagogy helped them recover their place in society.

Raccords: UpSocial mostly works with public institutions and governments. Is this a deliberate choice? Is it at this level that we can achieve the greatest systemic impact?

Miquel de Paladella:  We started working mainly with public institutions, but this has evolved, and now we also work with the private sector, philanthropists, NGOs, and impact investors. Systems change requires a change in relationships, in power structures, and mainly in mental models and narratives. Engaging with public institutions often allows us to successfully convene the rest of stakeholders for innovation processes. Without them, systemic change takes more time and effort. It is therefore deliberate to engage them from the start.

We work well particularly with cities. When I worked for UNICEF, I realized how poorly some national governments understand the complexity of these problems. But I saw cities as perfect spaces for experimentation. If an experiment works in Montreal, it’s easy to take it to Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver. And public institutions bring everyone to the table—public and private actors, NGOs, trade unions, private sector companies, and so on.

We also see the greatest opportunities in prevention. Our social services focus their energies on responding to emergencies; when asked about preventing them, they answer that there are no resources left, even if they know it would be beneficial to all and cost-efficient. For example, we have worked with children in care in Catalonia. The irony is that early-warning mechanisms are in place there, but preventive action is not prioritized due to lack of resources. Instead, the tendency is to invest when children are institutionalized. When children get into the care system for the first time, at age zero to one, they typically stay 93 months in three cycles during their childhood, with their siblings frequently joining them later on. The system had the data, but it was not interrogated to uncover this reality. So success was measured against the capacity of the system to detect cases, the number of children taken into care, and their academic success. Now there is another dimension to it: How many children can stay in their families after having gone through an intense family therapy focused on their protection and development?

If one can activate an intervention at an early stage, the magic happens. This is when there is a demand for help. This is when a need for innovation can be transformed into a demand for innovation.

Public institutions everywhere say the solution is more funding. I don’t buy it. Scarcity, not money, generates creative innovation. The most powerful change is to transform need into demand.​, and then to transform the purpose and the way success is measured. ​

About our guest
An economist and social entrepreneur, Miquel de Paladella has worked on social-innovation questions with Ashoka, on advocacy with UNICEF, on human rights with Plan International and the Global Movement for Children, and on development with the Society for International Development. In addition to UpSocial, he has founded several organizations in the fields of microfinance and education.

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