Civil Innovation: Fostering Grassroots Movements & Social Enterprise in Brussels

What is the formula for social progress?

Most governments and large businesses are keen to find ways to reliably harness innovative potential to solve problems of governance, competition and efficiency. But what if top-down strategies to accelerate and incubate innovation actually become restrictive when applied to grassroots movements?

Social change invariably begins with people that have recognized the potential of their own ideas in spite of their political or economic conditions. Structured incubation with generic developmental stages may be effective for start-ups in a for-profit environment, but social entrepreneurship has distinct challenges. We need novel approaches to organizing and developing innovative people and social projects from scratch.

A group of young innovators have today created Brussels Together, a platform built on the premise that as opposed to capturing and incubating ideas within a pre-existing structure, social entrepreneurs will actually benefit from being given more freedom.

Building itself on the ‘open-source finance’ model Open Collective, Brussels Together is a host and network for social entrepreneurs, as well as a provider of shared administrative services, relieving some of the burden that emerging social projects face.

The Open Collective model is essentially an access point to file both donations and expenses that are eternally public and transparent. A supporter of hosted project can view how their donations are spent as well as file expenses of their own if they work or contribute themselves. The platform is meant to encourage young people to organize their movements in the form of collectives as an alternative to traditional formal organizations, each re-inventing the wheel administratively.

A Brussels Together meet-up held in May 2017.

Brussels Together is itself a collective of collectives, acting as a host registered non-profit for members groups that are often in their infancy. By using the common registration member collective are not subsidiaries, nor do they answer to central leadership, but are instead “built upon” the central administrative and social foundation of Brussels Together as decentralized collective and a fundamentally different way of organizing.

Perhaps most importantly, the group is a social network and connector hosting meet-ups and events that showcase initiatives, act as a soundingboard for new ideas, and a petri dish of innovative spirit in the realm of local social change.

Most local projects were started out of impatience and frustration with too little being done to address local issues like municipal affairs, housing, poverty, sustainability, the refugee crisis and many others. Why shouldn’t you are I be the one to do something to address or even solve one of the countless challenges we face as a community?

In Brussels, Xavier Damman, the co-founder of Open Collective, describes the attitude of many citizens toward the city as “love-hate”; recognition of the flaws in the community coupled with a desire to make it better. There is an element of truth when self-deprecating Belgians roast the capital as being “a complete mess”, and Brussels has as many problems as it does charms.

It’s that honest, practical attitude that drives Brussels Together: everything remains in the open, the gatherings are conspicuous, and dialogues are and exchange of ideas and projects in various stages of development, offered up to be critiqued fairly and constructively.

Civil society is ultimately the reservoir from which innovation and social progress emerges. Removing the barriers for people to connect, share and launch their ideas is the first step in developing a local engine of grassroots social movements. Distilling social entrepreneurship to an elegant and modern form of organization — the open-source collective — is perhaps itself a game-changing innovation that is taking hold in Brussels.Civil Innovation: Fostering Grassroots Movements & Social Enterprise in Brussels.