Philipp von der Wippel started ProjectTogether when he was 16 years old. Before and during his studies at Oxford University, he worked for the BMW Foundation, the German Federal Ministry of Finance and PwC Public Sector Consulting. With meanwhile 8 years of experience in the field of Social Innovation. I caught up with Philipp as the co-founder of ProjectTogether where he and his team help social innovators across Germany create prototypes for solutions and connect them to the right partners to scale.
Changing complex systems requires coordination. We need specific solutions and strong coordination among them.
At ProjectTogether, we often play the role of coordinators. Apart from helping ideas and initiatives directly, our mission is also centered around showing how we as society can solve problems smarter in the future.
Ecosystem building has a lot to do with processes and structures – some of the mechanisms that govern our society are not yet well equipped to serve the needs of the 21st century.
One layer of what we do is showcasing how we as a society can have more responsive mechanisms of how to respond to newly arising challenges.”
Supporting entrepreneurs directly
“At ProjectTogether, we bring together all the resources, contacts, expertise and knowledge so that young innovators can set their proof of concept in front of the right people. Once they have developed a successful prototype, we connect them with bigger institutions so they can scale their social innovation. Every three months we pick out one system or issue where, in our opinion, social innovators can make a big difference. We analyze and try to understand the system and how the problems arose in the first place. Then we screen and identify up to a hundred social innovators from all across the country to work on this challenge.
The big solutions to the problems of our time are not only solved in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg.
We start with a large group since we don’t know at the outset which ideas work best. As a matter of principle we give them a bonus of trust to start with and guide them through a nine-month process. We do most of this work digitally because we know that the big solutions to the problems of our time are not only solved in Berlin, Munich and Hamburg. Innovators work with personal coaches every two weeks and have regular calls with those peers who apply a similar theory of change.
Moreover, we believe in needs-based resource support.
We have built a digital platform where we pool all the resources we have access to (pro bono, foundations etc.). With hundreds of innovators crossing paths at ProjectTogether, we have an incredible amount of knowledge and resources within the community that we try to make available on our platform as a collective learning opportunity.
There are no random conversations by the coffee machine so you have to make room for digital alternatives.
Working online instead of in-person means, of course, that certain physical elements are missing. You can compensate for a lot, but you have to do it consciously. A lot more communication is needed, you have to be really clear on the process. There are no random conversations by the coffee machine so you have to make room for digital alternatives. What we have learned over the last year is that when we talk about systemic change, it has a lot to do with the social innovator’s perspective which we probe through introspective questions like
- Am I aware of the reason for the problem?
- Am I willing to interact with the stakeholders?
- Will I really get into the weeds to tackle the root cause of this issue?
The only way you can systemically change a problem is by interacting with the players who caused the problem.
Social innovation in a welfare state
“In contrast to what I’ve seen in the UK, the role of social entrepreneurs is different in Germany based on the fact that Germany has a very strong social welfare state. You don’t have to take care of the basics because the state is providing them. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need social innovators! On the contrary! They can focus on increasing effectiveness. A more impactful status quo is possible.
Social entrepreneurs shouldn’t try to replace the welfare organization. Instead, we ask how innovators can improve it and innovate on existing models.
That’s why we place so much emphasis on how you can bring your initiative/innovation to existing organizations.
Instead of starting every innovative idea from scratch and doing it alone, it’s much smarter to partner with established players who work on the same issue!
That’s where we come in. Social innovators in Germany – and other countries, too, I’m sure – struggle with gaining access to resources so that they can focus on getting their prototype out. Ambitious changemakers with great ideas and a hunger for prototyping need an advance in trust and support instead of hunting for little grants with a lot of paperwork. These social innovators often do not get the opportunity to convince big stakeholders. It’s not about the lack of solutions, it’s more about big players’ reluctance to adopt them. Besides, I have found that incentives from the philanthropic system feels often like an “award”, but systemic change takes a lot of time and needs a lot of analysis. And that takes time and resources. It’s hard to get funding to pay your rent or do the deep research required.
I am convinced that it’s not about having a single big solution. Our approach is to test hundreds of solutions and then bring the most promising ones to scale. One example I like in particular is a close friend of mine who illustrates well the partnership between corporates (REWE & DM) and a social startup: share, a TOMs model for groceries. Had they not partnered with existing corporates, they wouldn’t have been able to create such an impact!
Another example I really like is the WirVsVirus hackathon. This was the world’s largest hackathon which we organized together with other institutions and the German chancellery. During the online event, more than 28,000 people worked together to elaborate on solutions that can be implemented to solve the problems that came up due to COVID-19. Within 48 hours, over 1,500 projects were born of which we supported 130 in a six-month program. WirVsVirus was a great example of how society and the government can work together to find new ways of how we can solve the most pressing issues.”
Philipp von der Wippel
Founder and co-director. Obama Fellow. Systemic thinker.