Social ecosystems, innovation and ethics

1 December 2021

Some economic activities strive to improve the quality of life of their community. Based on solidarity goals and pursuing a more human approach to business, the SSE -Social and Solidarity Economy- can be found worldwide.  

The concept of SSE emerged in the late 90s when the Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of the Social Solidarity Economy (RIPESS) gave it a definition. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) currently understands it as “cooperatives, mutual benefit societies, associations, foundations, non-profits and social enterprises, which have the specific feature of producing goods, services and knowledge while pursuing both economic and social aims and fostering solidarity”.  

Respond, rebuild and reinvent 

In the ‘Respond, Rebuild, Reinvent’ project, cities share their approaches to SSE and their programmes to expand this business sector. After looking at Warsaw, Dublin and Montreal, we explore Guadalajara (Mexico) and Bilbao’s approaches in this article. 

By Social and Solidarity Economy Ecosystem, Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco, understands the totality of people, organisations, institutions and infrastructures in each territory that enable social and solidarity organisations to generate impact. The actors involved have diverse approaches to address social challenges and drive sustainable development: social enterprises, specialised think tanks, non-profits and government ministries. 

This ecosystem reunites cooperatives, companies, social enterprises, and other entities meant to offer goods and services to generate social value. 

On this side of the ocean, the Covid19 pandemic allowed Bilbao to spot more SSE organisations, especially those that cared for citizens and neighbours. The Spanish city attempts to change the mentality of more prominent companies, which must move towards “more humanistic enterprises.” 


The ecosystem may not be consolidated yet, but the city has worked to stimulate its social innovation and social entrepreneurship since 2013. By offering information on how to become a sustainable development business, the public programme pursues adding companies to the ecosystem. 

Guadalajara, Mexico. Image credit: kevnreyes666

Due to the pandemic, the priority was economic reactivation. With this in mind, the city focused on finding out how to work with local suppliers. Business revitalisation implies supporting the entire chain: suppliers, logistics, artisans, and so on. For example, the traditional furniture and manufacturing sector can contribute to the local ecosystem by guaranteeing local labour recruitment. 

Guadalajara, through the Ministry of innovation, Science and Technology, considers itself an articulator, enabler, facilitator for the capacities, and investor in the regional ecosystem. These roles converge in two primary business tools: the Network of Innovation Centres (REDI) and an Open Platform of Innovation (PLAI). The first one offers proper, inclusive and collaborative workspaces; the second, a virtual business skills learning platform. 

With the physical spaces available at the REDI centres, the state of Jalisco aims to uplift and stimulate digital transformation, experimentation, co-creation, co-working, capacitation, and linkage for all the people that make the ecosystem a living entity. 

In exchange for a space where entrepreneurs can work, have meetings and access the internet, Guadalajara requests contributions such as skills masterclasses or innovation workshops to other companies, or local recruitment. The aim is to maintain networking and meet the whole ecosystem that, in many cases, preserves a social approach. 

The information and knowledge given by the participants are uploaded and available in the Open Platform of Innovation, which acts as an incubator and business accelerator. A constant flow of information, tips and tricks goes into and out the platform boosting innovation and business knowledge.  


The city council’s support of SSE ecosystems lays its foundations back in the 1950s when the first cooperatives were laid down in the region. Such businesses pursue a more democratic leadership, being all the founders entitled to take decisions of equal relevance and the profits distributed among all. They may start small but evolve into large corporations, like one of the most famous companies in the Basque Country, the Mondragon Corporation.  

Bilbao, Spain. Image credit: Marta Buces

Large corporations and cooperatives go into the concept of Social and Solidarity Economy, which includes a more concrete category: the solidarity economy.  

The solidarity economy activities are purpose-driven instead of motivated exclusively by profit. Under this umbrella, we can find smaller organisations that support new projects and local communities and reinvest revenues back into the community.  

The municipality reinforced its commitment by launching a Strategic Plan for the Social and Solidarity Economy. Universities, companies, civil society, the SSE networks, and the administration gathered to promote this transformative model as a preferred option for economic-business development in the city. 

As a result of this Plan, the public-private hub Ekonopolo took off. The initiative searches for responsible public procurement, social entrepreneurship and cooperation, social markets, circular economy, and inclusive employment. The objective is to develop plans, programmes and concrete actions in Bilbao and its territory. 

Ekonopolo kicked off more than 25 years ago in Bilbao and is now in 15 territories in Spain. The movement has evolved from a model closely based on social assistance to include other types of organisations such as ethical banks or organisations related to renewable energy. 

In short, experienced and new-to-this cities are increasingly implementing strategies to create or maintain the Social and Solidarity Ecosystem. Inside and outside Europe, social impact escalates its relevance in the business world.  


Marta Buces Eurocities Writer