An interview by Diana Fehr / June 2023
Toñi Caro is a senior institutional capacity builder for the implementation of societal impact and stakeholder engagement strategies. She is currently Associate Professor and Director of the International Research Project Office at Valencian International University; senior researcher at the Digital Society Technology Unit at the I2Cat Foundation; Founder of the Eoh-for-Good, a think tank and strategy consultancy to promote leading transformation for the common good and Founding Member of MAVERICKS Advancing Higher Education.
She is PhD in International and Intercultural Studies and is an accomplished and motivated thought leader with a keen interest in social & digital innovation. She offers broad and extensive experience in academic research, policy analysis and strategy design. A prolific author of several peer-reviewed publications on various social issues related to internationalisation, higher education, and sustainability. She has been actively promoting social impact in the Basque, Spanish and European contexts for over a decade now in connection with international peers.
Diana Fehr: In the time of the pandemic, Social Innovation has become increasingly important. However, many people still have difficulty understanding the term “Social Innovation” and the kind of impact it can truly create. Can you explain this specific type of innovation in a nutshell and what it means for each of us in the future?
Toñi Caro: Absolutely! Based on my experience I can share my understanding of social innovation, but it’s important to note that everyone may have a slightly different definition. Social innovation is a broad term that encompasses various concepts, but we need to acknowledge that social innovation was done even before we were calling it like that. What’s crucial about social innovation is that it is human-centric and it focuses on addressing a recognized need.
The pandemic served as a clear example of a problem that affected all of humanity. In response, people from different backgrounds, with diverse experiences, and varying resources came together to solve this urgent problem. This collective effort is an integral part of social innovation—responding to a need and tackling it together. Moreover, it’s not just about a one-time solution. To make a real impact, we must think about the long-term sustainability of our actions. Jumping in, doing something, and then leaving won’t solve the problem. We need to think about what needs to be done, how to do it, and with whom so that we genuinely address the issue and accompany the affected people or situation. This sustainable commitment is essential for achieving meaningful solutions.
Furthermore, Social innovation can be pursued by both profit and nonprofit actors, sparking a debate in the communities about what constitutes pure social economy. However, I believe that as long as we embrace inclusiveness, cooperation, impactful outcomes, and maintain a sustained commitment, we can generate effective fairer solutions. Another critical factor to consider is the common good. While individuals are naturally driven by self-interest, true social innovation occurs when we transcend our personal interests and align them with the interests of others. It is in this collaboration that we find solutions together.
I must emphasize that achieving social innovation is not easy. It requires negotiation and bringing together different perspectives, ways of understanding, and approaches to problem-solving. However, when this collaborative magic happens, real impact is made.
In summary, social innovation is about being human-centric, addressing urgent needs, and committing to sustainable solutions. By working together, embracing inclusivity and cooperation, and keeping the common good in mind, we can create a better future for all of us.
Diana Fehr: It seems like your ambition towards finding sustainable solutions has always been there. Can you share what triggered your decision to become an expert in social innovation?
Toñi Caro: Social innovation aligns perfectly with my innate curiosity and desire to experiment. I’ve always had a natural tendency to experiment and find solutions, even from a young age. I remember a particular incident when I was around four years old. My parents had rabbits on their balcony and I believed that rabbits with their sail ears could fly like birds. So, in my young mind, I thought the rabbits should be in the air as well. In an attempt to test this theory, I took one of the rabbits and tried to fly it off the balcony. Of course, the rabbit didn’t fly, and I am really sorry about that. But it was my way of exploring and experimenting at a young age, and this curiosity and experimentation have stayed with me throughout my life (not killing rabbits, anymore, hahaha). It has been a continuous process of learning, experimenting, and trying new things. And over time, I consciously made decisions to maintain this motivation for change and innovation.
I also have a deep commitment to solving problems rather than simply acknowledging them and moving on. Whether it’s addressing issues of inclusion or climate change, I believe in taking responsibility and finding ways to actively contribute to the solutions. It’s not just about individual efforts; it’s about coming together and collectively making a difference. When many people join forces, even small individual actions can create a significant impact. By putting people at the center and approaching things with a mindset of continuous learning, I have embraced social innovation as a way to make a positive impact. I’ve made mistakes along the way, like with the rabbit incident, but I’ve learned from them. Each mistake has contributed to my personal growth, allowing me to better understand others and how things work. So, the decision to become an expert in social innovation stems from my natural inclination towards experimentation, my continuous learning mindset, and my commitment to actively solve problems for the betterment of society.
Diana Fehr: You mentioned that the world needs interdisciplinary collaborations, and collective alignment around purpose. What role do you think does and can the cultural sector play here? How can they contribute to the bigger solution?
Toñi Caro: I believe that the cultural sector has a significant role to play, and it’s something we should have started focusing on long ago. We often prioritize the rapid production of knowledge and results, driven by advancements in artificial intelligence and technology. However, we must not overlook the human side of things—the arts, humanities, and creativity that the cultural sector brings to the world. These aspects are what make us uniquely human.
While machines can perform many tasks efficiently, they lack the ability to bring that creative and artistic essence. We need to value and embrace the creative part of being human, just as I learned a great deal through play and experimentation during my own childhood. Unfortunately, today’s children often lack the space and freedom to explore their creativity. For instance, even if they play music, it becomes a source of stress as it must adhere to the same rigid schedule as their schooling. The joy of freely expressing themselves through music, dance, painting, or other forms of art is often diminished. We need to change this dynamic.
By integrating cultural, humanities, and artistic elements into our learning processes from a young age, we can cultivate a sense of passion, curiosity and creativity within ourselves. This would enable us to bring our best selves to the world, adding a unique and valuable perspective to collective endeavors. It will require transforming our educational systems, providing space and time for playing, and encouraging engagement with cultural activities like visiting museums, attending concerts, and participating in artistic expression. So by bringing together diverse voices, including those from the cultural sector, we can foster a collaborative environment and drive positive change for the common good.
Diana Fehr: You are also the founder of Eoh-for-Good, a company dedicated to supporting those who aspire to make profound changes within the innovation ecosystem for the common good. But how is it even possible to unlock the power of innovation? Can you provide examples of how efforts can be coordinated to solve challenges and achieve collective transformation?
Toñi Caro: To unlock the power of innovation and make profound transformation a reality, I believe there are several key elements and requires a shift in mindset. First, there needs to be a wake-up call, a realization that our current direction is not sustainable. This realization should compel us to take action and start moving in the right direction. Each individual has a responsibility to respond and contribute in their own way. It can start with simple acts of kindness and consideration in our daily interactions with others. Even in this interview, how we treat each other matters.
Additionally, it’s important to foster a collaborative environment that embraces interdisciplinary collaborations, interpersonal relations, and intersectoral co-creation. Within my work with Eoh-for-Good, I have identified ten “I’s” that represent these collaborative aspects. These include bringing people from different disciplines, sectors, and backgrounds together to build trust, think collectively, and address common challenges. It’s crucial to identify and understand the interests and expertise of each individual involved in the co-creation process.
By finding common ground and aligning interests, we can create a sense of commitment and shared purpose. It’s a process of interaction and collaboration that leads us towards collective solutions. It may sound complex, but taking a systemic approach allows us to tackle challenges from a broader perspective.
The Eoh-for-Good methodology, which I am currently working on, emphasizes this systemic approach and will be called “Compass” as it provides us with a direction towards the common good. To illustrate this, I often use metaphors and images because they help convey messages more effectively. Through this approach, we can engage people’s imagination and understanding, enabling them to grasp the importance and potential of collective transformation.
Diana Fehr: In your role as a senior researcher at , which is part of the project funded by the European Horizon program, you focus on challenge-driven related to promoting healthy living. Why are co-creation and participatory methodologies central to this project?
Toñi Caro: Working on INTEGER, I have the privilege of collaborating with techno-anthropologists, engineers, and professionals from the health sector. Overall, the project demonstrates the importance of co-creation and participatory methodologies in addressing challenges and promoting collective transformation in the context of healthy living. The project brings together a diverse mix of expertise, including both senior and young professionals, fostering intergenerational collaboration. We are bridging the gap between social innovation and business-driven innovation by aligning the diverse expertise in the consortium and beyond.
I often use the metaphor of a bridge that needs to be built between these two worlds, as they often speak different languages and have different motivations. Social innovators and entrepreneurs typically focus on addressing societal needs, while business-driven innovation seeks profit. However, we’ve come to realize that if we don’t bring investment into social innovation, the important needs being addressed by social innovators won’t receive the necessary support to make a significant impact. Thus, co-creation becomes essential.
In the INTEGER project, we are experimenting with a digital platform to facilitate collaboration. By leveraging the best of digitalization, we can amplify the impact of social innovation on a larger scale. We are five months into the two-year project, and our goal is to present a model for co-creation that integrates digital and social innovation. Building trust is a crucial first step in collaborative approaches. Establishing interpersonal relationships allows for deeper understanding, breaking down barriers, and enabling effective collaboration. It’s important to note that collaborative processes can sometimes encounter challenges, but having committed leadership over time and persistence can yield positive results. Now we are currently witnessing the value of the INTEGER project as people from different regions are connecting and sharing experiences. This European arena provides an opportunity to learn from one another and improve our practices. It’s an ongoing process that requires time and dedication.
Diana Fehr: In your work you put your focus on a triple transition: social, green and digital. What exactly do you mean by that?
Toñi Caro: The metaphor of the Three Musketeers and the triple transition – social, green, and digital – emerged during discussions surrounding the European Commission’s budgeting and programming for the 2021-2027 period. While the focus was initially on the digital and green aspects, we strongly sense that something was missing. That missing element was the social dimension. The realization was that everything we do, whether it’s related to digitalization, sustainability, or technological advancements, should be human-centric and planet-friendly. It should serve humanity and address the needs of society. And the idea is that technology and digitalization should support and enhance our efforts to create positive societal impacts.
In this context, the metaphor of the Three MuskEUteers, with their famous motto “All for one, one for all,” resonated strongly. The concept of the triple transition encapsulates the idea that all three dimensions—social, green, and digital—are interconnected and equally important. It emphasizes the need for a holistic approach where the social component is at the center of our endeavors. So, the Three Musketeers metaphor and the triple transition signify the understanding that our actions and innovations should prioritize societal well-being, while considering the environmental and digital aspects as well. It highlights the importance of collective efforts and collaboration in achieving positive and sustainable transformations.
Diana Fehr: One key point you mentioned is that innovation often originates from individuals rather than hierarchical structures. Could you elaborate on this concept?
Toñi Caro: Yes, I’m writing at the moment on that. It’s crucial to recognize that innovation typically arises from individuals, not necessarily from top-down directives. This means that each of us has a responsibility to nurture and preserve our innate creativity, that childlike spark within us, throughout our lives. It’s essential to stay motivated and continuously generate ideas. This connection to our artistic side is significant because it enables us to create and derive joy from the act of creation.
As we transition into adulthood and enter the professional world, we often find ourselves in a setting where we go to work, fulfill our responsibilities, and detach ourselves from our work. While some fortunate individuals manage to align their abilities and motivations with their tasks, many people experience a loss of motivation, creativity, and entrepreneurial approaches.This aligns with your question because within museums, companies, universities, or any organization, countless ideas go untapped because people lack the channels, confidence, or opportunities to bring them forward. Over the past 15 years, my focus has been on creating spaces for co-creation. It involves breaking free from rigid organizational structures and establishing informal yet supportive environments where individuals feel confident enough to share their ideas. When this environment of trust and freedom is fostered, magic happens. Motivated crowds emerge, ideas are listened to, and even small innovations can have a significant impact, empowering individuals and strengthening the organization.
I refer to this phenomenon as “multi-i co-creative vortices, again the many collaborative elements that start with an i (interpersonal, interdisciplinary, intersectoral… collaborations). By implementing structures that enable the gathering of innovative ideas from individuals, a powerful momentum is generated. It’s like a rotating vortex that collects and harnesses the innovative particles from across the organization. Change happens when there are people within the organization who believe in this type of intra-intrapreneurship and actively create new spaces to facilitate this process. This is what we need to explore and experiment with in the future. So it’s important to foster a culture of innovation as an ongoing process that requires continuous effort and adaptation. Organizations should be open to experimentation, learn from failures, and continuously refine their approaches to unlock the full potential of their employees’ creativity and drive collective transformation.
Diana Fehr: You just mentioned that you are currently writing a book, and it seems you’re in the final stages. Can you share the title with us?
Toñi Caro: The title of my book came to me just a few days ago when I was contemplating the process of innovation and the multiple elements involved. I developed the metaphor of a compass, which captures the essence of my ideas. The compass represents the different “I’s” in the innovation and experimentation process – intuition, interest, idea, integration, investment , and institutionalization. These are the various stages that guide us towards innovation. Additionally, there are other “I’s” associated with principles such as inclusiveness, impact-driven, and more. Furthermore, there are a number of ten ’i’s”, that I already mentioned and that will be explained in the book that emphasize co-creation, fostering interpersonal connections, and extending to the international sphere.
However, the underlying theme that ties everything together is the pursuit of the common good. It was during my writing process three mornings ago, during my uninterrupted time at 5 a.m. with no emails, phones, or distractions, that the idea of a compass struck me. I realized that if we can collectively find the tools to guide us towards the common good, everything aligns perfectly. And now I’m finalizing the book and making adjustments to ensure that the metaphor of the compass resonates throughout. By the end of this month, I anticipate completing the revisions, and then it will proceed to the publishing stage. My hope is to have it released and available by the end of September or October. I am also grappling with the decision of embracing an Open Access approach, as I strongly believe in making the book accessible to all. However, I understand that this may require some investment, but I view it as an essential aspect of its afterlife.
Diana Fehr: That’s wonderful to hear about your book progress! The metaphor of the compass sounds intriguing and aligns well with the themes you’ve been discussing. The concept of finding a direction together towards the common good is a powerful idea. It’s great that you’re finalizing the book and planning for its release. Open Access publication would be a fantastic way to make the content widely accessible. Best of luck with the final stages of your book and its subsequent release! What comes next for you after completing the book and with all the projects and roles you’re currently fulfilling? Do you have any other plans in mind?
Toñi Caro: Absolutely, I always have new projects and ideas in the pipeline. Firstly, I need to find a balance and manage the workload from all these different endeavors. It’s crucial to maintain inner balance to ensure my well-being and happiness. Otherwise, exhaustion becomes a constant companion. So, finding that equilibrium is my immediate priority.
Looking ahead, one of the things we are already working on is collaborating with a group of experts who have over 25 years of experience in higher education. Our focus is on the deep transformation that higher education institutions and universities require. Together, we aim to offer transformation services to these institutions for a duration of two years. Our goal is to address and tackle the various missions that universities undertake. As I mentioned earlier, we need to bring entrepreneurial approaches and foster creativity within education. This initiative is a step in that direction.
Additionally, I am interested in working with the cultural sector. I envision a future where museums play a central role in the context of transformation within innovation ecosystems. Often, museums are seen as institutions that serve a cultural purpose, but I believe they can have a much broader impact. The question we need to explore is whether we can give museums a central role in bringing together the quadruple helix, or even multiple helix models, as drivers for change within their respective regions or contexts. This is an idea I am eager to experiment with in the months and years to come. So, balancing my current commitments, collaborating with experts in higher education transformation, and exploring the role of museums in innovation ecosystems are some of the avenues I intend to pursue in the near future.
Diana Fehr: Thank you Toni, for sharing your expertise on social innovation and to highlight the importance of individual creativity, innovation and co-creation in various contexts, and reminding us of the transformative power of collaboration, open-mindedness and the pursuit of common goals for a better future.
Header: Own picture – Description: My favourite flowers in the summer