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Company Story: Shining a spotlight on social innovation in Ireland

Fiona Descoteaux, CEO of Innovate Communities, talks about the important role that social innovation plays in Irish society.

Shining a spotlight on social innovation in Ireland

Over the next few weeks, we are shining a spotlight on social enterprises, to share more about the fascinating world of social innovation and social entrepreneurship in Ireland.

Introducing the series is Fiona Descoteaux, CEO and Founder of Innovate Communities, a leading Dublin-based social enterprise, focused on fostering community development and community-driven innovation (CDI) to tackle some of society’s biggest issues.

“In a nutshell, social innovation is about creating the ideas for change and social enterprise is about the business model for social change. Often, some social innovations become social enterprises”

Innovate Communities also support local social enterprises based in their Social Innovation Hub in Ballymun, Dublin by providing a range of business supports such as mentoring, incubator programmes and work space. We plan to meet some of these social entrepreneurs as part of this series.

Describe Innovate Communities in a nutshell? Who you are and what you do?

Innovate Communities is a social enterprise and registered charity, established in 1995 whose mission is to promote and support social innovation at a community level in Ireland.

Innovate Communities first social innovation hub was established in 2015 in Ballymun, North Dublin and was motivated by the desire to work with communities to address the causes of poverty and social inclusion in the area. Since then, the hub has served as a convening and working space for community groups and social entrepreneurs delivering a range of programmes and projects that have sought new ways to address social inequality and develop opportunities for growth.

How did you start your social enterprise and when?

My career and passion have always been in the community development sector both in Scotland and Ireland. Prior to my current role I was CEO of a Local Development Company. In 2015 I restructured and developed the company, launching Innovate Communities. I was extremely driven to find a way of working with others to improve the way our community services worked, to simply make communities, and the lives of the people that lived there, better!

What programmes and supports do you provide?

At Innovate Communities we provide training, mentoring and incubation programmes for individuals, start-ups and social enterprises as well as workspace and ‘social innovation hubs where we help our community create solutions to local problems.

Through our many years of experience and extensive research, we have also developed a “Community-Driven Innovation” model that we hope to roll out in communities nationwide over the next five years, which is something we are very excited about.

The community-driven innovation model engages and empowers businesses, individuals, and local authorities to work together to mitigate challenges through step-by-step innovation processes and impact plans. The model is a new concept to Ireland but has been demonstrated and proven in the US and Canada to positively impact the lives people and promote sustainability and the societal and economic development of communities.

Other programmes we offer include; INSPIRE Mentoring, which pairs business professionals with college students, who are often from areas of disadvantage, for career development and guidance; Incubate-for-Growth Programme which provides 10 months free work space to start-ups; and our Youth Academy programme.

“Social innovation is a powerful and valuable tool to deliver impactful and positive change for people and the planet. It involves social groups and communities creating, developing and diffusing ideas and solutions to address pressing social needs”

Can you explain the difference between social innovations and a social enterprise?

Social Innovations are innovative responses to unsolved social problems and needs, which have not been successfully tackled by the State or the market. A social innovation can create new social structures that allow issues of justice, education, environmental protection, and sustainability and/or community development to be reframed so that new and better solutions can be delivered. Social Innovations can be developed by non-profits, charities, social enterprises, businesses, governments or individuals.

A social enterprise in Ireland is defined as “an enterprise whose objective is to achieve a social, societal or environmental impact…”, according to the National Social Enterprise Policy 2019 – 2022.  A proportion of a social enterprise’s income comes from traded activity. A social enterprise will invest effort and resources to deliver social, cultural, or environmental impact.

In a nutshell, social innovation is about creating the ideas for change and social enterprise is about the business model for social change. Often, some social innovations become social enterprises.

Why are social innovation and social enterprises important?

Social innovation is a powerful and valuable tool to deliver impactful and positive change for people and the planet. It involves social groups and communities creating, developing and diffusing ideas and solutions to address pressing social needs.

More recently, social innovation has been gaining policy attention, providing a means to stimulate new ideas that address complex issues alongside ensuring citizen participation.

Due to its participatory and creative nature, it is well-positioned to address environmental challenges, which are multifaceted and often require societal or behavioural shifts towards more sustainable options.

As the world searches for solutions at scale to address societal challenges, governments and civil society leaders are calling on businesses to make key contributions. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offers an opportune framework for such contributions. Companies that turn societal challenges, such as unemployment and lack of healthcare services, into opportunities that enhance business growth and long-term competitiveness will be positioned for sustainable success.

How do social enterprises make money? Are they for-profit businesses or are they fully funded?

The easiest way to look at this is, is focus on the word enterprise. A social enterprise is a business. They have to make money like any business; selling products, services, knowledge.

Their income may be in the form of sales and contracts, and can also include grants and donations. However, the main difference between them and a business is that a social enterprise reinvests its surplus back into achieving its social objectives.

What is next for Innovate Communities in 2022?

It is set to be an exciting year for us! We are aiming to open another social innovation hub in The Liberties in Dublin, using the blueprint of our hub in Ballymun. This will be an exciting expansion for us and we are looking forward to empowering the local community to create change for the better!

We are also looking into building a digital twin of our social innovation hub, so that our services will be available online nationwide. We are also looking for a cross-section of partners and investors; government, private sector, local authority, academic to test and refine our Community-Driven Innovation Model in rural and urban communities.

If you would like to find out more about Innovate Communities, please visit


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