Social Innovation in Taiwan
Two years ago, our President Tsai Ing-wen said an inspiring statement in her inauguration speech. She said:
Before, democracy was a clash between two opposing values, but now democracy must become a conversation between many different values.
Indeed, in conventional thinking, social benefits and business profits are opposite forces and often contradict each other, forcing the government to make tradeoffs.
However, the idea of social innovation brings a brand new way of thinking.
For people working on social innovation, the core objective may be achieved by developing business models to address social issues or environment issues, and the government’s role has changed.
Instead of being the arbiter torn between different sides, we are now asking a different set of questions. We’d ask: “What are our common values despite different positions?”; and we ask: “Given the common values, can we find solutions for everyone?”
In Taiwan, various organizational forms of social innovation have been developed in the past 20+ years, such as community cooperatives (Homemaker’s Union), NPOs (Children Are Us Foundation), and companies (Leezen Company Ltd.).
Found in every corner of society, social enterprises are now close to the people and issues that are hardly reached by the government.
Agoood is such an emerging social enterprise. In November of last year, Agoood launched a crowd-funding program named Endowed City — Assist Street Sellers Rise to Their Feet.
Through an innovative design of mobile stations — illustrated by painters with Down’s syndrome — they are changing the street sellers’ role from charity receivers to providers of diversified services, including Wi-Fi hotspots, phone charging, tourist guidance, and selling fair trade goods.
Initially, Agoood planned to raise TWD 800,000 through crowdfunding. However, as of now, more than 1 million has been received. The success of Agoood’s fundraising shows that such programs can be quite persuasive, for they are socially beneficial with an eye to solving concrete social problems.
According to the survey released by DBS Bank and the Vision Project of United Daily News last year, four out of five Taiwanese agree with the philosophy of social enterprise and are willing to purchase or invest into them.
However, only one out of five could name at least one social enterprise and describe how such entities operate. Ultimately, increasing the public’s awareness about social enterprises from 19% to 78% should be our most important task at the present stage.
On October 18th of last year, the opening ceremony of Social Innovation Lab, presided over by Premier William Lai, was held in Taipei’s TAF base. The Lab is not only an one-stop venue of government services but also the fruit of collective wisdom from more than one hundred social entrepreneurs.
During the preparatory stage, we organized five co-creation workshops, to which social entrepreneurs were invited to communicate their conceptions and expectations for the Lab.
As such, we achieved a blended consensus and created a space fulfilling all purposes. For example, the Lab stayed open till 11:00 p.m., and so did the café and kitchen — a resident chef was also arranged.
Moreover, I personally provide my office hour at the Lab every Wednesday, from 10am to 10pm. Provided my visitor agree to have our conversation posted online, anyone interested in social innovation is welcomed to have a discussion with me.
In fact, such arrangement was also made at the suggestion of social entrepreneurs.
We were pleased to see the opening of the Lab on October 18th, under the support of the public and the hard work of our staff members. During the two and a half months till December 31st, altogether 221 events were held there, and the Lab was visited by more than 13,000 persons.
Additionally, we are also quite pleased to see that similar bases for social innovation have been set up in Taoyuan and Taichung.
We hope in the next year the trend will sweep to other parts in Taiwan, especially those non-capital counties and cities that are less advantaged in resources. This was also Premier Lai’s expectation for us during the Lab’s opening ceremony on October 18th.
Of course, we always keep in mind that Taipei cannot represent the whole country.
In addition to hosting the office hours at Taipei Social Innovation Lab every Wednesday, I take a trip every two weeks to Taichung, Chiayi, Kaohsiung, and Hualien, respectively, visiting the four united service centers under Executive Yuan and located there to have discussions with local social entrepreneurs, with full transcripts published online.
To free our colleagues from exhausting long travels, we use remote technologies to bring thirty colleagues from different ministries together, so that we can respond to the social innovation related questions and demands raised by friends far and wide in real time.
Gradually, this video conference technique is being integrated in the daily process of the Administration.
In response to the laws and regulations adjustment requirements of social enterprises around Taiwan, we have submitted to the Legislative Yuan an amendment draft to Company Law, wherein we proposed a supplement to the for-profit clause in Article 1:
The company may behave in a manner that promotes public interests, so as to properly fulfill its social responsibilities.
In Article 393, we also clearly state that:
The company is entitled to voluntarily disclose its Articles of Association to the public by having it posted on the website by competent authorities.
This is designed to promote purpose-driven entrepreneurship, and also to facilitate the accurate statistics, comparison, and judgment of the government and investors.
We also set up a Regulations Sandbox Platform, on which law and regulation clarification consultation services are offered to innovation practitioners.
Furthermore, during our tour around Taiwan, we convened departments, whenever necessary, to negotiate the issues that social enterprise practitioners encountered in carrying out their new forms of activities.
In other words, we are committed to assist solution providers in solving their legal problems.
For instance, in January we called up relevant departments and local government to discuss the feasibility of NPOs setting up subsidiary companies. It was then agreed that a pilot scheme would be launched, where civil associations could incorporate initiate closely-held corporations and exercise full control over its operations.
On Social Innovation
By collaborating with the civic sector, we are building a robust environment suitable for social entrepreneurship to grow, where the power of civil society could be brought into full play.
If we say that the concept of social enterprise focuses on the change of business ideas, which is from being profit-oriented to social-impact driven, then social innovation is to change the relationship between social groups through scientific innovations and technological applications, in order to devise new solutions to social issues.
The g0v Air Pollution Observation Network is such an example.
By combining the diversified professionalism in network communities, this network utilizes the simple air quality sensor “airbox” which is becoming very popular, and applies IoT technologies, so that all interested people can participate by providing real-time air quality information, whether on their own balconies, at school, or in the office.
Little by little and bit by bit, thousands of contributors accumulated a massive database, which is closer to that of the air quality in the actual places where people are active.
An exceptional advantage of Taiwan is the full support, instead of rejection, of the government. As part of the forward-looking infrastructure plan, we launched an Civil IoT program with a 4-year budget of TWD 4.9 billion.
In the program, an enormous amount of environmental data on air products, meteorology, water resources, earthquakes, disaster relief, etc. are integrated into a high-speed computing environment, so that we can collaboratively discover the correlations between social activities and environmental phenomena more quickly.
We are also working with the Industrial Technology Research Institute to assist with the manufacture of domestic PM 2.5 detectors with an excellent quality and low-price, so communities can yield data of a higher accuracy earlier.
Why does the government encourage such social innovations? Currently, there are many misunderstandings between governments and their people due to non-transparent and insufficient information.
Using the air quality in Taiwan as an example, establishing effective dialogs about public policies is difficult until the sources of daily air pollution are disclosed to the whole society — including what pollution is from outside Taiwan, from fixed sources in Taiwan, and from mobile sources, etc.
We are proud that “airbox” related products and application experiences have been introduced to other areas.
So to speak, by uniting the strengths of both the government and the public, Taiwan proved to be capable of not only solving its own problems but also providing such solutions to other countries in similar situations as a reference.
As a matter of fact, whether in the development of social enterprises, or in the breakthroughs of social innovations, Taiwan yields to nobody in Asia or even the world. Indeed, we have a lot of experience and advantages that could be shared with and lent to others.
In order to work out Taiwan’s social innovation potentialities and realize the values of our social enterprises, the Executive Yuan has put in efforts to integrate cross-department resources.
Led by Wu Mingji, director of the SME Office, we have closely assisted civil organizations including Social Enterprise Insights and Children Are Us Foundation to hold the Tomorrow Asia — Asia Pacific Social Enterprise Summit on May 5th to 6th of this year.
We would like to express special thanks to Mayor Lin Chia-lung of Taichung for his strong support. In Taichung Cultural and Creative Industries Park, various events and activities including seminars, fairs, and small trips, fully showcasing to foreign guests and our people the vibrant social entrepreneurship scene, as well as advanced social innovation scientific-technologies of Taiwan.
It is worth mentioning that, in concert with our New Southbound Policy, over 70% of the foreign speakers are from Indo-Pacific countries and areas. As such, we hope that the forum will promote the exchanges and cooperation between Taiwan and Indo-Pacific areas.
The mutual trust and collaborative efforts between administrative authorities and the civil society is the foundation for the thriving of social entrepreneurship and social innovation in Taiwan.
Such partnership not only embodies the values of Taiwan but is also favorable for us to implement what was made clear by President Tsai to all in her National Day speech last year: We are committed to link more tightly Taiwan’s development with the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.
by the author.