Social ecosystems: a purposeful local economy

16 December 2021

Whether joblessness in Rotterdam or homelessness in San Francisco, some problems are so intractable that neither local, national, nor EU governments can hope to solve them alone. In each of these cities, the local administration has sought to tackle social issues by facilitating independent organisations for which solving social problems is part of the mission. By brining these organisations together to create synergies between them, the cities develop what are called ‘social and solidarity ecosystems’.

Many refer to social ecosystems as a systemic, transformative paradigm at the local level. Instead of pursuing mere profits, a solidarity economy contributes to a better quality of living in its surroundings. 

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines this ecosystem as: “The totality of people, organisations, institutions and infrastructures in a territory that enable social and solidarity economy organisations to generate impact.”

Rotterdam and San Francisco’s approaches to the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) are excellent examples of that interpretation.


Over the last fifteen years, Rotterdam has started to explore and identify how social, cultural and environmental concerns can be integrated into policy decisions, rather than focusing merely on economic growth.  

The city may be considered a pioneer since no legal framework to identify SSE ecosystems is in place in the Netherlands. But Rotterdam has created its own and, since 2019, different initiatives support the SSE and enable cooperation.

Indeed, the number of social enterprises has risen over the past years both in terms of size and number.

Rotterdam. Image credit: Micheile via Unsplash

Voor Goed – in English ‘For Good’ – is an autonomous agency that the council established to reduce the number of unemployed citizens. This agency contributes to projects that will help both the city and its more vulnerable residents.

Along with other stakeholders, Voor Goed contributes to the Rotterdam Impact Coalition (RIC). This institution pursues the transition to a ‘purposeful economy’ through knowledge, networks and finance. An investment fund called SIFR offers the monetary help to companies that fall in the SSE category. 

But the most innovative experimentation Rotterdam has to offer is the project Rikx. Presented to the other eight city partners of Rotterdam in the project RRR, Rikx is a marketplace for social impact, a sustainable investment model for employment-related projects. 

San Francisco 

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, San Francisco fosters their SSE ecosystem through cross-sectoral partnership work. The city brings together the resources, expertise, and communal understanding and networks from across the city’s public, non-profit, and private sectors to work on critical initiatives in service of improving the well-being of the residents.

San Francisco’s Office of Civic Innovation (OCI) is a key driver of the city’s cross-sectoral work. Launched in 2012 as a nexus point for public-private partnerships, the OCI helps make San Francisco’s government more collaborative, inventive, and responsive for citizens.

San Francisco. Image credit: Amogh Manjunath via Unsplash

The OCI’s programme, Civic Bridge, is a public-private partnership that recruits private-sector volunteer teams to contribute approximately 20% of their time over 16 weeks and work alongside city staff to tackle critical civic challenges – including those focused on addressing critical issues such as racial equity, economic recovery, and housing and homelessness. 

Since its establishment in 2015, Civic Bridge has engaged with 30 distinct city departments on 68 projects, with approximately 600 City and volunteer participants. 

In addition to its public-private partnership efforts, San Francisco works to collaborate and support the initiatives of the 6,571 non-profit organisations located in the city.

As the municipality continues to work towards recovering from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the effective cross-sectoral collaboration will be an integral element to the success of its efforts.

Cities all around the globe implement strategies and programmes that boost the Social and Solidarity Economy ecosystem. San Francisco and Rotterdam participate in the OCDE project Respond, Rebuild, Reinvent, a peer learning project that joined nine cities across the globe to exchange innovations and challenges in this field.

To learn more about the SSE initiatives run by other cities such as Dublin, Montreal and Warsaw, click here. To discover Bilbao and Guadalajara’s, click here. 

Main image credits: Razvan Chisu


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer