• Opinion
  • April 23, 2019
  • 7 minutes
  • 1

Social innovation is helping to build territorial peace in Colombia

Opinion: Trust in government is low — listening to citizens can help

This piece was written by Paola Coral, provincial government of Nariño, Colombia. 

It is part of a special mini-series on what the world can learn from the public innovation landscape in Colombia.


People today are tired of top-down government systems where decision-making is done behind closed doors. They are demanding more and more spaces where they can be heard, taken into account and, above all, be given the opportunity to contribute to the development of their communities and nations.

Some government institutions have found in the concept of social innovation a possible means of responding to this latent need of citizens. However, while social innovation is a global trend, it still presents a huge challenge for many state institutions. In fact, the majority of social innovation projects still come from citizen-led initiatives.

Today, accepting the challenge of putting into practice programs based on social innovation offers a way of opening the doors and actively listening to citizens, to whom we must then be willing to respond in a concrete and effective manner.

       • For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed

In 2016, the CISNA Centre for Social Innovation was established by the government of the Nariño department in the south of Colombia. This centre is unique: it is the only one of its kind assigned to a departmental administration in this country.

At CISNA, we have opted to develop a working model that focuses on creating opportunities for individual communities to build collectively a better life. We have conceived of a process of social innovation built on five strategic aims: citizen participation, collective intelligence, collaborative work, citizen activation, and free knowledge and culture.

Ordinary citizens are able to contribute ideas

CISNA has become a bridge for communication between the state and its citizens, opening up dialogue and allowing people’s voices to be heard and their opinions considered. Ordinary citizens are able to contribute ideas and formulate projects that benefit the overall community.

The Centre, which is a large citizen laboratory, generates spaces for the exchange of knowledge, giving special importance to lived experiences. Specialist local knowledge plays a critical role in decision-making. This is of vital importance: in effect, the local culture of Nariño forms the basis of every interaction throughout the process of establishing effective connections between the administration and the communities concerned.

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CISNA’s innovative processes and methodologies have allowed it to reach the rural territories of Nariño, decentralising innovation processes and allowing far more people’s skills to be identified, highlighted, strengthened and established.

All the above has helped us with three issues fundamental for the exercise of government in our department: restoring credibility of the administration in the eyes of citizens; generating a culture of social innovation that helps the reconstruction of our social fabric, fundamental for building territorial peace; and, little by little, changing the culture from one of state assistance to one of citizen empowerment.

This has not been easy. Relying on social innovation processes to transform reality and improve the quality of people’s lives is an immense challenge, especially when these processes are carried out in a context such as that in Nariño.

Only with the organisation and promotion of a local innovation ecosystem and through coordination and cooperation with both the national government and international actors is it ever possible to develop large-scale initiatives.

Specialist local knowledge plays a critical role in decision-making

And, before you begin, you also need to know, map, identify and carry out pedagogical work, generating learning communities and administering what Antonio Lafuente calls “social acupuncture”, which is nothing more than community work through building networks.

In the Nariño region, consolidating this process of social innovation has involved three tasks. First, strengthening our learning and educational communities.

Second, creating the necessary administrative structure to promote the innovation ecosystem, by establishing the Department of ICT, Innovation and Open Government in 2016 and, in 2019, the Under-Secretary of Innovation, with the remit of strengthening our institutions.

And third, developing, with the help of citizens, a regulatory framework and our Public Policy of Social Innovation for Nariño, which was designed with the support of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the Canadian Embassy. This exercise involved more than 1,500 people with representatives from all sectors of the 64 municipalities that make up the Nariño Department.

Today, in Nariño, we are continuing to work to promote a culture of social innovation which highlights the strengths of the territory and its people. We are developing a solid social practice that contributes to the consolidation of territorial peace. We keep moving forward. — Paola Coral

(Picture credit: Flickr/Dennis Tang)

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