Awards for Social Innovation European Roadshow: Italy

Author: Laura McDermott, Design Lead at IE Center for Social Innovation

Shortly after the 2nd Edition final of the Fundación MAPFRE Awards for Social Innovation, my team from the IE Center for Social Innovation and I set off around the world to promote the 3rd Edition. The Awards look for high impact startups and initiatives that strive to make change in the areas of sustainable mobility and road safety, ehealth, and insurance innovation. We are now in the third edition and building momentum, with the closing of our application phase taking in hundreds of exceptional projects from all across Europe, Brazil and the rest of Latin America.

A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into getting so many applications of such high quality, and this was the focus of our team over the months of October and November. While my colleagues travelled around Latin America, I travelled around Spain, Germany, Italy and Ireland to meet with entrepreneurs, accelerators, incubators, investors, universities, and other key players of the innovation scene. We take an “on the ground” approach in each of the regions to better understand potential projects and increase the ever-growing awareness of the Awards.

My first stop was Milan, where I met with three key drivers of social innovation in Italy. Ashoka Italy, Opes Fund and Avanzi all welcomed me with open arms and we had stimulating conversations about the local ecosystem.

Key Ecosystem Players 

Avanzi is co-founder and resident of Make a Cube, “the first certified incubator and accelerator in Italy specialized in companies with social, environmental and cultural value”. Apart from offering great coffee in their bicycle-themed café, Make a Cube is a lively space and there is a buzz of enthusiasm between entrepreneurs. When talking with the directors of Avanzi, I learned that they have counted approximately 18,000 social organizations in Italy, principally cooperatives or non-profits.

This breadth of social movement was echoed during our conversations at Ashoka Italy. Ashoka has a broad network of social activists and promoters across the country, and the world, who strive to improve the way ‘things are done’. Their global and regional summits recognise the leaders of social change and have become a key component for connecting leaders and raising the visibility of their social activities.

Opes Fund has been one of the evangelists of social innovation and entrepreneurship in Italy, though their reach is international. Meeting the team in person helped me to understand the vision of Opes, and the depth of work they do to increase the prevalence of social entrepreneurship in Italy, by inviting culturally and geographically diverse entrepreneurs to the likes of their annual summits.


There seems to be a wealth of activity in the philanthropic and “social” space in Italy, which is aided largey by corporate donations and fundraising. The concept of “social business” is growing but not quite as mature as other countries in central / northern europe. One of the main differences between a social business and a non-profit is the focus around building a sustainable model with a social cause. Rather than funding its activities through fundraising or donations, social business is a hybrid in the sense that it has 1) a social mission, and 2) a business model which pulls from commercial know-how in order to sustain activities in the longer term.

Considering the level of dedication and vision of each of these key players, I am sure we will see continued growth and prevalence of social business in Italy over the coming years. #Scalingyourimpact

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