Incubating social innovation

SoCentral is the incubator bringing together a team of social innovators, from both the public and private sector. Located in Oslo's historic Sentralen venue- an industrial space with railway tracks rooted in the walls- the former bank is a hive of business and enterprise.

We spoke to Stina Låstad about collaborating and working towards sustainable development, in this unique co-working space. 

Incubating social innovation

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Tell us about your journey to getting involved in SoCentral.

SoCentral was founded in 2012 by Thomas Berman, Cathrine Skar and Håkon Iversen. The reason they started SoCentral is they believe that in order to solve complex societal issues we need to cooperate in new ways. We need to stop talking about change, and start acting. We need to put the societal issues in the center, and gather change agents from different sectors and professional backgrounds to work together to find new solutions. At SoCentral, we believe in the power of example, and our aim is to create and scale as many powerful sustainable solutions as possible.

My academic background is from business development and social entrepreneurship, but I also have experience from volunteer work (ISFiT) and public-private innovation partnerships within the heatlth sector. I am a pragmatic idealist with a drive for business with a tripple bottomline. I got to know SoCentral when the social entrepreneur, Medarbeiderne (where I am co-owner and chairman of the board), needed an office space and a network. We joined the pilot version of the incubator and Cathrine (cofounder of SoCentral) joined our board. Through this I got to know the SoCentral-team, and I really liked their passion and drive.  I came on board two years ago, to develop the Nordic Incubator for Social Innovation.

What is SoCentral?

SoCentral is a company where solving the social challenge at hand is the only agenda. Using the mindset of an entrepreneur we foster cross-sector collaboration and innovation. We start creating new solutions when we are confident that others will join later. We connect entrepreneurs and organisations from all sectors where collaboration is needed, and share knowledge and models for others to use and copy. Our goal is system change.

We partner with people and organisations that want to be part of tomorrow´s solutions, and run the Nordic Social Innovation Incubator in Oslo, Norway. The incubator has over 160 members from 80+ organisations from all sectors that are working on projects and solutions that aim to create a better and more sustainable world. The incubator consists of a working space, meeting facilities and a large community of change agents. We also facilitate events and meeting places, provide capacity building programs and mentoring, both for social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, and employees from public, private and the civil sector.

Are there particular social/global issues that your residents are focused on solving?

Our members work on developing new solutions in areas such as urban development, health, elderly care, environmental protection, integration, welfare, education and new funding models. However, we are very open to developing solutions that fall outside of these core focus areas, as long as it represents social innovation.

For example, one of our newest members Spurven design has blended visual learning techniques to create quirky illustrations of letters and numbers, to make it easier for children to learn and remember. Her solution to improving learning techniques is innovative, exciting and socially appealing. Annenhveruke (every other week) is a startup that provides temporary accommodation (every other week) for recently separated families that are unsure of their housing situation by connecting them with home owners. It is a simple but impactful solution to a real social challenge.    


Tell us about the typical profile of the businesses within your incubator?

It is difficult to give a typical profile of our members. The companies and organisations that approach us are at different stages of the business growth cycle. We have entrepreneurs who haven’t even established a company yet, businesses that have achieved sustainability and serial entrepreneurs who are establishing their 3rd or 4th company. We also have members from municipalities, large corporations and nonprofits. Their backgrounds span a range of academic disciplines, industries and sectors. Also our impression is that we have more female members (65%) than than the average incubator, and higher mean age.

Our members are all are deeply passionate about social change. Many have started companies based on personal experiences or as a result of seeing gaps within societal structures that are not adequately address. For example many our entrepreneurs that work with integration were previously employed in asylum centers or government agencies for integration.

Our members are not just focused on developing a sustainable business model or delivering a solution, but on changing societal perspectives and attitudes, disrupting tired norms and influencing policy and government positions on social themes.

The social innovation scene globally is known to be collaborative, is this something that you foster within the businesses within the incubator? Are there any examples of businesses collaborating?

SoCentral aims to be an example of successful collaboration. We have created an environment that facilitates the synergistic exchange of information between members and external actors. We learn from each other’s strengths to improve our own competencies.

At the same time, SoCentral is involved in a number of collaborative projects that develop and drive social solutions. For example, Boost Refugee is a three-month incubator program designed to develop ideas and solutions for the better integration of newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers in Oslo. It was designed and developed in collaboration with the Oslo Municipality, Lundin Foundation (a Canadian based nonprofit organisation) and SoCentral. We want Boost Refugee to be a model of how other stakeholders can establish similar co operations to addresses other social challenges.

Another exciting project that is under development is Pådriv. It is a collaboration between Telia, Sweco, Snøhetta, Trefokus, Oslo Municipality and the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture. The aim is to develop ideas for business models within the framework of sustainable cities, where sustainability is a result of the interaction between nature, technology, infrastructure and human. The models will culminate in products, processes, organizational structures and / or services that will be tested in an area of  Oslo. Our aim is to trigger a sustainable green shift in the district, and thereby create an international example of how the Norwegian society and business sector can play a global role in the green shift.

In addition to these we have a strong portfolio of collaborative projects that we are proud of and are looking to expand.  


You’re based at Sentralen in Oslo, a relatively newly developed space? Tell us about your spaces and your role/influence within the building at large?

Sentralen was opened in March 2016 and is arguably Norway’s most creative space for social and cultural collaboration. Sentralen was originally Christiania savings bank, itself a social initiative when it was launched 100 years ago. As such it is only fitting that Sentralen was established as a centre for innovators working on finding new solutions for dealing with social challenges and creating unique cultural experiences.

SoCentral rents office spaces on the 5th and 6th floor of Sentralen, where we host our Nordic Social Innovation Incubator.  We complement the other parts of Sentralen by providing an  innovative environment and facilitating the entrepreneurial spirit needed for social innovation to happen. We believe that new solutions are created when people from different backgrounds get together and this is what we do at Sentralen. We host an environment for a large, composite mixture of social innovators and enable contacts and networking.

We meet with Sentralen on a weekly basis to ensure that we are both on target to achieving our mutual goals.


What have been your biggest challenges to date?

Developing collaborative relationships with established public, private, and charitable institutions is challenging. Getting them to partner with entrepreneurs, to see the value in what they do and what they want to achieve has not been easy. We had to work hard, produce results and prove ourselves for the right stakeholders to take notice. Apart from local actors, attracting the right international partners has also been challenging.

Accessing intrapreneurs and getting them to be a part of our environment has also proved to be difficult. This is usually hindered by the management of the company that they’re from as they are creative disrupters and valuable resources to their companies.

And your biggest successes?

We have established a financially viable business that has managed to stay true to its values and principles. Staying true to our values and principles has allowed us to attract the right members and entrepreneurs who also share these values. And together, we have successfully created an environment where people are eager to collaborate and build new solutions through partnerships. Apart from mutual goals, what drives these partnerships is a deep level of trust and commitment to our shared passion of social change.

Social Innovation/Global Sustainable Development goals had a noticeably bigger place at this years Oslo Innovation Year, why is this?

The theme for Oslo Innovation Week 2016 was Power Couples, and its purpose was to promote our ideas and solutions to facilitate the creation of effective global partnerships. When people think about social innovation, they don’t immediately think about Norway, and we need to change this. More entrepreneurs based in Norway are discovering new and exciting solutions to social problems. As one of the world’s richest countries, Norway has a unique perspective on how to approach social challenges, because our social problems vary from the social problems found in other countries. We think differently and find solutions to challenges that others perhaps didn’t know existed. For example, Oslo Innovation Week featured the AV1 robot that goes to school for children and young adults who suffer from long term illnesses or can’t attend school. It facilitates two-way communication between the child and the teacher or classmates. This is a scalable solution that can be applied in many countries, under many different settings.

A new, vibrant scene is developing in Norway now. More people are taking risks, creating startups and basically pushing the social boundaries. We have never had so many business incubators or innovative and collaborative environments before. Therefore the future of innovation in Norway is very promising.


What’s next for SoCentral and the Incubator?

SoCentral is still growing. We still want more members in the incubator and we continue to work on attracting the right social innovators who can thrive of and contribute to our environment. At the same time, we will continue to work closely with our members to ensure that they are satisfied with the services that we offer, and are able to reach their goals. We are also looking into streamlining these services and developing a digital platform that can capture the competencies and needs of our members in an effective way.

SoCentral has a healthy portfolio of exciting projects that we are currently involved in and are looking to expand. We will continue to develop sustainable business models – models that show how social challenges can be solved with economic sustainability- by partnering with the right stakeholders.

Finally, SoCentral will continue to be a strong advocate for social innovation. We will continue to nurture the entrepreneurial spirit and encourage others to become a part of the movement.


Find out more about SoCentral on their website:

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