Social Innovation in Europe and Asia: Exchange of Good Practices for Sustainable and Inclusive Societies

Exchange of good practices for sustainable and inclusive societies

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to guarantee that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity. As the goals are interconnected, sustainable development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability, while the mobilization of all resources, stakeholders, available technology as well as innovation is necessary, in order to decrease environmental degradation, but also tackle poverty, inequalities, and exclusion, achieving inclusive and sustainable societies. 

Indeed, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their realization is crucial now more than ever. With 1 billion people worldwide experiencing some form of disability, it means that 15% of the global population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, due to the physical, financial and societal barriers that they are faced with daily, resulting in less opportunities. More specifically, due to the interrelation of the goals, the impact on the life of people with disabilities is linked with various SDGs, meaning that they are one of the groups suffering the greatest risk of poverty (SDG 1), their access to health (SDG 3) and quality education (SDG 4) is restricted, as are their chances at ensuring decent work and economic growth (SDG 8). This stresses the need to reduce inequalities (SDG 10) and ensure the social participation and inclusion of people with a disability, justifying why disability awareness and inclusion should be at the forefront of the 2030 Agenda. Consequently, as we are currently passing through the Decade of Action for delivering the inclusive vision of the 2030 Agenda, there should be more practice, rather than theory, and when traditional ways seem to be ineffective, alternative paths should be explored. This is where social innovation and technologies come into play, as social innovation entails new ways to meet today’s social needs, through new, effective solutions, which usually come from, but are not limited to, non-profit entities.

In this article we will take a look into good and innovative social and technological practices from Greece and Korea that can lead to the inclusion of people with a disability and, as a consequence, how the exchange of good practices on a higher level could lead to inclusive societies in Asia and Europe. The narrative is simple to conceptualize: if social innovation in Greece can lead to inclusive societies all over Europe, why not implement a similar paradigm in Korea and Asia in general or vice versa? By examining the work of other organizations and by breaking down the implementation methodology of their projects and activities, one can learn useful lessons about the elements that comprise their success, as well as measure their results and impact. This so-called “exchange of good practices” provides a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, so that organizations can work towards inclusion by not stepping into the same traps that previous organizations did. In turn, a lot of “good practices” can be replicated and scaled up, while the partnership of organizations for the exchange of such practices can lead to even greater social impact.

Greece-Korea bilateral cooperation: opportunities through exchange

The bond of cooperation between Greece and Korea first started with Greece’s participation in the Korean War, with the countries first established diplomatic relations in 1961 and celebrating their 60th anniversary this year. Greece and Korea cooperate within the framework of the United Nations and regarding the Europe-Asia cooperation, both countries participate in the Europe-Asia Interregional Dialogue Process (ASEM). Regarding the financial bilateral relations, the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU and Korea set the framework for bilateral trade and economic cooperation. While the shipping sector is traditionally one of the most important sectors of bilateral cooperation between Korea and Greece, there are significant prospects for mutual cooperation in the fields of innovation, high technology and “green” development.

One important step regarding the collaboration of Greek and Korean companies was taken in 2014, when a Korea-Greece consortium, led by LG CNS, won a 137.9€ million project for the application of the electronic ticket system for mass transit in Athens. The implementation of this good and innovative technological practice from Korea in Greece had great benefits for both countries, as the project was the Korean IT company’s first technological transportation project in Europe, while it also greatly modernized Athen’s transportation system, providing an alternate sustainable solution to old paper tickets and signaling a new era for the city.

In the civil society sector, the Greek-Korean collaboration stems mostly from the Korea-EU Civil Society Network (KEN), which is funded by the European Union for civil society organizations from both regions to communicate and interact, so that countries with different political, economic and social conditions can share their experiences and successes, seeking a better solution to their social and civic agenda. The Network has already held several workshops and webinars involving civil society organizations from Korea and Greece, with the past year’s topics including the successful engagement of people with a disability and citizen empowerment for an inclusive, transparent and democratic Europe amongst others. 

However, even if there have been steps in regards to the exchange of technological expertise and the sharing of socially innovative good practices between Greece and Korea, there’s still a lot of ground with high potential to be covered. The need for a more systematic approach in relation to the exchange of good practices between the two regions is arising and a collaboration between Greece and Korea might help achieve greater results and impact in the creation of inclusive societies in both countries and, as a consequence for the wider European and Asian regions.

Social innovation in Greece: a good and innovative practice for inclusion

In 2018 the European Commission awarded Athens, the capital of Greece, the title of the European Capital of Innovation with a bonus prize of €1 million, for the scaling up of local innovation activities and collaboration with other cities. Moreover, in the 2021 Global Innovation Index, Greece ranked in the 47th place, mainly due to the lack of market and business sophistication, as well as due to the difficulties in regards to the current political and regulatory environment. Although Greece has been facing multiple challenges, it does show progress. The country is trying hard to recover from the economic and social crisis, which can also be reflected in its consistent performance increase in innovation, especially in 2019 and 2021, according to the European Innovation Scoreboard 2021. Indeed, in the last 5 years, Greece seems to have placed a lot of importance on innovation, especially on how social innovation can help the local community bring about change and open up to the world, with most of its initiatives being driven by civil society organizations, youth groups and small or social enterprises.

A participant in KINITRO’s Erasmus+ project “inCLUEsion”, using virtual reality equipment during an experiential workshop.

One such Greek youth-led social enterprise that believes in the power of partnership and exchange is KINITRO, aiming to educate people from all different backgrounds with non-formal and informal education methods, in order to create an inclusive and accessible society. The enterprise offers non-formal education training for businesses, schools, and other organizations, on different topics closely related to social rights. The organization’s core activity is the tailor-made disABILITY AWAREness Workshop, “Labyrinth of Senses”, which was distinguished in 2019 as a good and innovative practice on disability by the United Nations, as it provides a safe environment for participants to learn through different stages about disabilities, such as sensory, motor and intellectual disability. KINITRO’S team has implemented the trainings offline in 16 countries in 3 continents so far, while during the pandemic they adjusted their workshops to digital environments, reaching a total of more than 20.000 participants all over the world. Amongst its many achievements and awards, KINITRO was also honored with a Gold Award at the Hellenic Responsible Business Awards for their cooperation with the Vodafone Foundation in the category “Accessibility and Technology”. 

“Technology not only can lead to social inclusion or more inclusive societies but could really transform the lives of people with a disability” says Ms. Gabriela Telekfalvi, Founder of KINITRO in an interview with NOVAsia magazine. “For those who have a physical disability, virtual reality (VR) means the potential to try new experiences, such as climbing a mountain or swimming in the sea, perhaps for the first time. It could also help reduce anxiety before visiting new places or a busy road, by helping them plan accessible routes without even exiting their homes. People with Asperger’s might find practicing their social skills through VR useful and have fun in a non-threatening environment. And of course, VR is being used to give more people an idea of what a person with autism, epilepsy, and other conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, might be going through by simulating a real experience in a virtual world.”

KINITRO’s commitment to education and its objective to create inclusive and accessible communities on a European and International level, won the enterprise the “Global Citizenship Education” Award by the European Commission. Their recent Erasmus+ project “inCLUEsion”, funded by the European Union, is a clear example of that. The project took place in September 2021, gathering together 30 young participants from Greece, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria and Tunisia, in order to promote awareness and help participants gain a motive for action regarding inclusion and accessibility issues. “The participants found CLUES during the project, familiarizing themselves with terminology about disabilities, and the values of inclusion and respect towards other people, while by the end of the project they were able to recognize what is accessible in their universities, work, neighborhood, and in their local, national and international communities.” Gabriela shared with NOVAsia. But one of the most important aspects of similar projects is not only the influence on the individual, but the opportunity provided to organizations to exchange good practices, enhance their capacity building and in turn, improve their services to their local communities. 

KINITRO’s next project, “ABILITY AWARE: Tech-It VR” which is co-funded by the European Solidarity Corps of the European Union, incorporates innovative technologies in workshops, so that participants can gain a better understanding of the importance of accessibility through virtual reality. KINITRO’s Founder speaks about the vision of the project: “Virtual Reality glasses can create conditions for simulating a different environment each time, giving the participant the opportunity to adapt to the current situation and make creative use of its potential. For example, through a virtual reality video depicting what a wheelchair user experiences in Europe and, more specifically, in Athens, the participants of the workshop will experience the difficulties faced by a person with a motor disability, making them aware of the importance of accessibility and especially, accessibility issues in the center of Athens.”

In July 2019 KINITRO expanded its scope, bringing “Labyrinth of Senses” to Asia for the first time by joining the 30th International Youth Forum on “Inclusion and Inclusiveness: Shared Vision of Youth for Local, National, and Global Village”. The Forum was sponsored by the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, the World Assembly of Youth (WAY), Asian Youth Council (AYC), with 180 organizations and participants from all over the world, who were dedicated to the inclusion of people with a disability on a local, national and global level. During the Forum, KINITRO was able to enhance its capacity building and create a stronger network, with organizations in Asia and Korea, exchanging good practices with them and building contacts for future collaborations. Currently a representative of the Organization resides in South Korea, acting as a channel of communication for the organization in the country and the wider region, as they work on expanding their tailor-made workshops in Asia. Through the exchange of good practices and especially between Asia and Europe, KINITRO hopes to enhance and strengthen the competences of people with and without disabilities in these regions and worldwide, in order to eliminate discriminating attitudes, stereotypes and exclusion against people with disability, as well as demonstrate the importance of accessibility through the use of technology, both on an individual level and to the wider society. 

Innovative and inclusive technologies from South Korea

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Across the globe, South Korea is emerging as an innovation leader, giving birth to numerous innovative technological solutions in its pursuit to ensure the physical accessibility of the country’s 2.63 million people with a disability. According to the Korean Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, one in four people in South Korea face difficulties getting around on their own, a number which could be partly attributed to inaccessible routes. Even if most subway stations in Seoul have elevators and toilets for the disabled, there are still wide gaps between the platforms and the trains, and others have a significant height difference that hinder the use of a wheelchair. One organization that is set on making Seoul’s metro accessible is “Muui”, which creates transit maps for people with disabilities. Another innovative practice that tries to be the solution to accessible transportation is “Dagachi Naranhi”, or “Side By Side”, a mobility service, which uses GPS technology to provide directions through a smartphone app inside metro stations. As the user moves, the instructions are updated in real-time, providing information about the subway platform, nearest elevators and exits. 

Nevertheless, for people with a disability the psychological barrier and social exclusion can be greater than physical inaccessibility. A disabled person often faces exclusion from employment, skills training, education and other crucial areas that obstruct their social participation. In order to put a stop to this, South Korean researchers from the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute have begun developing virtual job training technologies for the disabled. Through the use of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies, people with developmental disabilities will be supported in vocational training and employment, which can increase their social participation. 

But while some organizations are trying to ensure social inclusion of people with a disability, other initiatives aim to secure their virtual inclusiveness. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a worldwide shift to digital environments -a transformation that organizations, businesses and even governments were not prepared to make-, the issue of online accessibility was brought to the surface. In reality, persons with disabilities are unable to access vital information about COVID-19 on an equal basis with others, or products and services offered digitally. What keeps people with a disability excluded from online environments is either the lack of digital skills or the lack of availability of accessible formats. To combat this and to ensure that physical disabilities are not an obstacle for smartphone use anymore, “Hwang Mario” – a start up composed of Yonsei University students-, developed ‘Mouth Mouse’, an app that enables people with motor disabilities to control their smartphones with their mouth. This is a step towards online accessibility and information society, as digital inclusion presents an important opportunity for people with disabilities to get access to education, financial services, skills development and employment. 

Future opportunities for sustainable and inclusive societies

Although these organizations are making progressive steps towards the SDGs, COVID-19 has deepened inequalities and while societal attitudes towards people with disabilities cannot be altered overnight, technologies can help make the transition smoother and faster. Only when physical and online accessibility of people with a disability is ensured, as well as their equal and active participation in society, will we be able to talk about truly inclusive societies. Certainly, all these inspiring success stories on technology for inclusion could be replicated and scaled up to address existing gaps and challenges in various parts of the world. Therefore, returning to our narrative: if social innovation in Greece can lead to inclusive societies all over Europe, why not implement a similar paradigm in Korea or Asia? And if a technological breakthrough from Korea can ensure the inclusion of people with a disability, why not scale it up or attempt to replicate it in another part of the world? Imagine the phenomenal impact that a combination of best practices on social innovation and technology for inclusion could have on local communities and societies, not only in the countries of interest, but all over the world. And South Korea’s technological expertise combined with Greece’s and Europe’s social innovation paradigms could help achieve that.

The final Sustainable Development Goal calls for strong global partnerships and cooperation, realizing that the inclusive vision of the 2030 Agenda can be achieved only through collective action. As the world is more interconnected than ever before, cooperation from all stakeholders is required on a global scale, from the governmental sector,  to the private, and civil society sector. The most recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York has called for the participation of young people in achieving the SDGs and even the superstar pop group BTS have stepped up to join the voices of world leaders to advocate the SDGs, signaling a move for global cooperation across all sectors. With this scaling up of collaboration in search of solutions, achieving sustainability and inclusion could be closer than ever. After all, collaboration between all stakeholders from different parts of the world would benefit all, increasing the quality of their work and triggering innovation, while technology can help the values of diversity and inclusion reach every corner of the globe.

Foteini Giannopoulou
About Foteini Giannopoulou 4 Articles
Foteini is currently pursuing a Master of Global Affairs & Policy at Yonsei University’s GSIS, as a 2020 Korean Government Scholarship recipient from Greece. Being a “global citizen”, she has participated in various educational seminars, international conferences, and summer schools in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Foteini has previous professional experience in social entrepreneurship for inclusive and sustainable development in Greece and Europe, while she has completed her internships at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Greece and the Hellenic Parliament. Academically, she is interested in international cooperation and especially bilateral relations between Asia and Europe, focusing on education, social entrepreneurship and sustainable development issues.