Change from the bottom up can empower a community

Jessica Tam says HK's social needs can be met if people pull together

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 2:41am

The government's new Commission on Poverty comprises six task forces that will study specific areas, including one responsible for steering the renamed Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund (previously, the Social Enterprise Development Fund). This HK$500 million fund, less noticed by the public, represents a new strategy for poverty alleviation. This is a bold step: by calling for social innovation, the government is drawing on public wisdom and looking for new solutions through entrepreneurship for the public good.

The idea is to meet social needs through a bottom-up approach with ideas and strategies that work in specific localities. This is somewhat different from the conventional, executive-led practices of public service delivery.

It is encouraging to see the government broaden the scope, but Hong Kong's main challenge to success in this area lies in its lack of a strong community base, which is the backbone of social innovation.

There are many examples of successful social innovation initiatives worldwide. One such movement for change has been taking place in Seoul in recent years and has accelerated since social activist Park Won-soon was elected mayor last year. With a strong belief in public engagement, the administration set up a social innovation unit to demonstrate its commitment to reforming the public service consultation process and funding of community development projects. The Seoul government has led with innovative initiatives such as sharing government office space with the public, the use of social media (it has about 500,000 followers on Twitter) and working to engage citizens and prioritise important issues.

This movement is backed by the strong civic culture and civil society organisations in Seoul. Beautiful Store, a brand of community-based thrift shops selling second-hand goods, has more than 5,000 volunteers in about 110 shops nationwide, and receives tonnes of items donated by the community, generating some US$20 million in revenue annually. The Hope Institute, a "think-and-do tank" initiated by Park before he became mayor, plays an important role to drive social innovation, with competitions and innovation camps designed to help people - particularly youngsters - turn ideas into real solutions to social problems.

In Britain, according to a recent survey by Social Enterprise UK, four out of 10 social enterprises are working in the most deprived communities, seeking to address the roots of social problems.

Can social innovation become a reality for Hong Kong and have a real impact on society? It's hard to see such changes occurring without a robust civic and participatory culture rooted in the community. Hong Kong has about 350 social enterprises, yet few can claim to have achieved the level of civic engagement of the groups in Seoul and Britain.

The only way forward is to nurture communities and empower citizens to solve their own community problems. Local people need to be invited to share their views and propose solutions.

The new HK$500 million social innovation fund should be used to encourage the grass roots to kick-start small initiatives that would have a major impact locally, and ignite the fire at the community level.

Social innovation is neither a hi-tech invention nor an earth-shattering device for tackling poverty and meeting the social needs of a community. It is simply about using new and alternative ways to address existing problems and fulfilling unmet needs.

We need outstanding leaders to drive change, but the real process should be a collective movement with deep roots in the community.

Jessica Tam Wing-sai is senior manager of the Social Enterprise Business Centre at the Hong Kong Council of Social Service