The Challenge

Social innovators face substantial challenges in building and scaling their solutions, due to a lack of resources for funding and access to relevant partners that are needed for effective solutions to complex challenges. Futhermore, public sector organisations at national, regional and local level have a limited understanding of the role they can play in supporting and scaling social innovation and applying them in their own service delivery. Besides, there is a lack of space to interact and to grow relationships between civil society organisations and the state as well as across federal levels within the state.

The Practice

Open Social Innovation stands for “a broad participation process (Open) to address social challenges (Social) with new solutions (Innovation). Open Social Innovation focuses on the parallel testing of numerous solution approaches – in order to quickly find out what works and what does not. Proven solutions are put into practice through cooperation – and ideally consolidated.”[1]

Source: Mair, J., & Gegenhuber, T. (2021). Open Social Innovation. Stanford Social Innovation Review. (Fall), p29.

OSI was recently successfully applied and implemented in Germany during and as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic in two major initiatives: In March 2020 the organisers of the #WirvsVirus Hackathon led by ProjectTogether issued an open call asking for solutions to problems caused by the COVID-19 crisis (e.g. digitisation of healthcare processes). Social innovators and their teams submitted solutions to the challenges and closely worked with implementation partners on bringing the solutions to life or to scale them. ProjectTogether then co-initiated UpdateDeutschland to further develop the participatory approach of Open Social Innovation and apply it to the most pressing challenges in Germany. Tools included networking opportunities with experts, weekly calls for knowledge exchange and community building, calls for knowledge transfer, and a digital platform where teams could request resources from supporting companies (e.g. legal advice). UpdateDeutschland also initiated partnerships and supported the social innovators by providing coaching calls and financial resources. Institutions from the public sector, the social sector and individuals submitted challenges and got new input and ideas that are suited for collaborative solution building. Strategic partners such as foundations and civil society organisations supported the process with communication, by inviting their communities to participate and with individual skills and resources, by initiating relationships between innovators and regional partners. The Federal Chancellery officially endorsed this programme, and several foundations and corporations provided funds, know-how and access to technology both during the hackathon and for the implementation.


In total, the #WirvsVirus Hackathon mobilised around 26,000 citizens and 4,000 corporates who developed about 1,500 ideas within 6 months under the auspieces of the highest level of German government. In the hackathon’s aftermath, the #WirvsVirus implementation programme supported 130 innovators of social innovation projects to further develop and scale their ideas. Similarly, the UpdateDeutschland program mobilised a broad range of actors, including 80 municipalities, 11 state governments as well as several ministries and the Federal Chancellery at national level over a very. Moreover, it has lead to the following results:

  • By using modern technologies, such as online collaborative platforms and video group calls, the programme changed the rules of interaction and participation. That has helped bridging gaps between local governments, civil society and NGOs, thereby breaking up hierarchies and providing a level playing field for all actors. It also had a real effect on how the new relationship was cultivated.
  • It enabled the actors to put aside their conventional roles which allowed the process to free up creative capabilities and resources within partici­pa­ting organisations and helped build something “that is highly unlikely to happen” in a standardised setting.
  • It raised awareness of the need to provide more resources to social entrepreneurs and civil society initiatives for them to tackle pressing social, ecological, cultural, and economic issues. Local and state governments pledged financial scholarships throughout the program to support individuals as they worked on challenges.
  • It enabled government(s) to interact and engage with society in new ways to develop ideas and solutions. Most political parties have committed to support social innovation efforts in Germany in their party programmes.

Insights / Advice to Peers

The stakeholders did not need much convincing to join the project as the COVID crisis gave a sense of urgency to act. The spectrum of partners brought in the much-needed holistic perspective on problem-solving that ensured that the ideation phase was as close to reality as possible. The project provided some learning for the future:

  • Mission orientation: A thematic narrowing down to a selection of focus topics (missions) enabled the development of closely networked communities, bundling of resources and the focus on common goals around these missions as well as faster scaling of prototypes/ presented solutions.
  • Process Optimisation: To facilitate the implementation and transfer of solutions, there is a need for targeted exchange processes, tried and tested templates and blueprints (facilitated by technology) to get collaboration off the ground efficiently.
  • Transparency: There is a need for a transparent listing/highlighting of solutions to improve the matching between the common problems present in multiple communities and the available solutions coming through Open Social Innovation. This would optimise the matchmaking as well as reduce duplication of solutions.

We would encourage other foundations and grant giving organisations to explore the format. Open Social Innovation is one of the ways to genuinely support a grass root initiative with participation from a broad sector of actors. Though the process might look chaotic compared to a linear problem-solving approach, the results are inspiring and gain better acceptance due to the bottom-up approach. Do calculate more time and resources when bringing in such a variety of actors together!

Further Resources

  • Gegenhuber, T., Mair, J., Lührsen, R., & Thäter, L. (2021). Policy Brief: Strengthening Open Social Innovation in Germany. Berlin. Retrieved from here
  • Mair, J., Gegenhuber, T., Thäter, L., & Lührsen, R. (2021) Learning Report: Open Social Innovation: Gemeinsam Lernen aus #WirvsVirus. Retrieved from here
  • Mair J., Gegenhuber T., Lührsen R., und Thäter, L. (2022) Learning Report: UpdateDeutschland: Open Innovation weiterdenken und lernen. Retrieved from here
  • CoLab Award Submission


[1] Update Deutschland – Die Community der Macher:innen (in German), accessed on 8th September 2021.