How can Open Social Innovation help tackle pandemic-related crises and other public policy challenges? 

In a new report, Johanna Mair and Thomas Gegenhuber find such initiatives need long-term and political support to create viable policies.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread last year, policy makers scrambled to find ways to protect lives and curb the spread of the virus. In Germany, a consortium of civil society organisations came together to create solutions for the social, economic and healthcare challenges presented by the unfolding crisis. 

Supported by the German government, the consortium launched the #WirvsVirus hackathon, an Open Social Innovation (OSI) initiative that brought together 28,000 participants to generate almost 1,500 ideas over 48 hours. Twenty of the hackathon’s best ideas were financially rewarded, while a further 130 projects have become part of a post-hackathon implementation programme. 

One year later and on the eve of a successor initiative, UpdateDeutschland, Johanna Mair, Professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School and Thomas Gegenhuber, Assistant Professor of Digital Transformation at Leuphana University Lüneburg, have published a comprehensive learning report on how #WirvsVirus unfolded, offering lessons for cultivating and supporting the ideas that stem from such initiatives. 

What is #WirvsVirus?

With support from Vodafone Germany Foundation, the report explores the use of OSI as a key driver of innovation in civil society and public administration.  

“Open and participatory forms of social innovation are particularly useful when we do not know exactly what the problem is, or we cannot assess the scope of the problems that we face – just think about the start of the pandemic,” says Mair. 

Social innovation aims to generate new and valuable products, services and practices to tackle problems in society. In OSI, an open call is issued to all sectors of society (civil society, public sector, private sector) to participate in this process. 

“In the case of social innovation,” says Mair, “the key marker of success lies in getting the process right. This was our role as learning partners: to really capture the learnings along the way that those involved in the process simply couldn’t see.” 

By following one of the world’s largest hackathons, the researchers saw an opportunity to understand not just how to generate a lot of ideas in 48 hours, but how to convert these ideas into workable, impactful solutions. 

What were the most outstanding ideas developed as part of #WirvsVirus?

Lessons for the future  

When it comes to organising a successful OSI project, both Mair and Gegenhuber stress the importance of long-term investment. 

“Social innovation is not a sprint – it’s a marathon,” says Mair. 

Any marathon runner knows that wasting too much energy at the beginning of a race will ultimately slow you down toward the end. This can become a problem for OSI projects too, where investors and supporters lose interest in the crucial later stages when ambitious ideas meet the realities of implementation. Mair and Gegenhuber saw these challenges throughout #WirvsVirus too. 

“Opening up and making a call that people come together and help – that’s actually the easy part,” Gegenhuber says. "The challenge becomes when viable projects grow, and even more so as they attempt to scale. At these later stages, there is a lack of support in the realm of social innovation and we saw that the possibilities for financing are just not accessible.” 

Mair pointed out that much of the responsibility for ensuring the long-term viability of OSI projects lies with elected officials. 

“[Politicians] cannot set up such a process and then not maintain their commitment of walking the journey with the teams throughout,” she says. “If you as a politician start or participate in an open social innovation project, be sure that your commitment also extends to scaling the solutions in order to create the impact they are intended to have,” she recommends. 

What can future Open Social Innovation projects learn from #WirvsVirus?

Ultimately, when OSI projects are well organised, they can help inspire better policymaking at all levels of government, Gegenhuber says. “One of the interesting things we learned from #WirvsVirus is that solutions developed by citizen-led teams can encourage us to think about the many ways policy makers can improve government services.”

"The #WirvsVirus hackathon has unleashed enormous engagement and creativity in dealing with the pandemic," says Inger Paus, Chair of the Management Board of Vodafone Foundation Germany. "By learning from the #WirvsVirus hackathon, we can strengthen trust in future programmes like UpdateDeutschland and truly empower citizens," Paus continues.

The recommendations from Mair and Gegenhuber’s learning report are particularly relevant as participants gather for the next hackathon sponsored by the German government. UpdateDeutschland, which takes place from 19 – 21 March, and aims to tackle issues that have been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic this past year.    

The full learning report is available (in German) here.  

A policy brief is also available in English

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Views expressed by the author/interviewee may not necessarily reflect the views and values of the Hertie School.