My Social Innovation Story: from fencing to social innovation

My Social Innovation Story: from fencing to social innovation

Written by Rania Rahardja, a student on our MSt in Social Innovation programme, who matriculated with Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

Over the next two years, we’ll follow the journey of some of our Cohort Five students, who started the MSt in Social Innovation programme in September 2020. We’ll learn why they applied to the programme, what change they want to influence and how they manage to balance the challenges of completing a demanding Masters with work and family.

En garde

Rania Rahardja, MSt in Social Innovation student

I am a Youth Olympian and former national fencer of Singapore for 10 years. My background as an athlete led me to become a Young Leader for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), where I obtained seed funding of CHF5000 to launch wheelchair fencing in Singapore last year. One year on since our launch, we’ve been featured in four Inclusive Day events, reaching hundreds of participants, both able-bodied and persons with disabilities. However, I am most proud of the sustainability of my grassroots initiative, with Fencing Singapore becoming an Inclusive Sports Association this year; and, actively working with our Sports Disability Council on a four-year roadmap towards the Paris Paralympics 2024. This journey I’ve embarked on since volunteering for the IOC is at the heart of my decision to pursue the Masters in Social Innovation.

Youth Olympic Games

In 2018, eight years after attending the Youth Olympic Games as a young athlete, I was selected to attend the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Buenos Aires as a mentor; returning in this capacity allowed me to see the power of sports beyond the effect it has on an individual level (i.e. impact on me as an athlete) but in addressing wider societal ills, such as providing employment and offering public sport facilities with the hosting of the Games and the measures taken to mitigate downside risks. Having the opportunity to visit a local villa (the Argentine slum or shanty town) on a private trip with the IOC President, Thomas Bach, allowed me to see firsthand how the provision of sport facilities could help rebuild local communities, foster a sense of identity, and increase engagement. The local chief mentioned that these effects were particularly prevalent amongst youth on their overall wellbeing and education. I also attended the three-day Olympism in Action Forum and witnessed the signing of memorandum between the IOC and Professor Mohammed Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 2006 on strengthening the relationship between sports and social business. This sparked my interest in the intersection of sports, social development, and entrepreneurship. Incidentally, two years later, I found myself living at the very heart of the legacy of the London Olympic Games of 2012 by the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

As part of my appointment to the Young Leader’s programme, I was given the chance to launch a sports social business. Inspired by my time in the UK where able-bodied and athletes with disabilities would train shoulder-to-shoulder in the same facility (i.e. integrated competition and training), I decided to introduce wheelchair fencing in Singapore. I thought this was a great opportunity for me to spread my passion for fencing and to promote inclusivity. Embarking on this project could also enable me to deliver social good in a low-risk environment with the peer support network of my fellow young leaders and allow me to learn more about myself and others.

Later in 2018, I was invited to speak about my experience at the Global Social Business Summit hosted by Professor Mohamed Yunus. Attending this five-day event, which included a series of workshops, ideation sessions and panel discussions, broadened my view on the social business landscape and ways in which corporations, the government and social sectors could be engaged to collaborate effectively in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The means to which this can be achieved saw no limits on the potential of human creativity, with initiatives found across the spectrum of business, sports, and arts to technology.

From summits to social innovation

Over the next two years, I attended several international youth summits including the One Young World, World Bank Group Youth Summit and Peace & Sport Forum. This not only sparked my keen interest in youth empowerment, and the desire to enhance my knowledge, but also got me thinking about the ways to deliver meaningful and scalable impact beyond my existing project. I was also particularly intrigued by the collaboration across private, public and non-profit sectors, given my experiences working with public bodies in Singapore, involvement with the IOC and day job in the corporate sector. Fuelled by this desire to understand more about the social landscape and learn about the role of innovation and entrepreneurship in addressing societal ills, through a theoretical lens and practical case studies, I applied for this Masters in Social Innovation programme.

I am currently at the end of Module One and looking forward to our first Residential week. I am fascinated by the definitions and perceptions of social ‘wicked’ problems, and the roles and limitations of each sector in addressing these. Seeing how we lack a consensus or the ability to agree on a universal definition of ‘problems’ is the tip of the iceberg of more issues surrounding this field. This includes accurate tracking and measuring impact, as well as the ability of people with the right intention to influence and shift mindsets and behaviour. Nonetheless, I am optimistic that the traction on topics such as “shareholder value” moving beyond a narrow focus on “stakeholder returns”, and efforts to emphasise “people, planet, profits” are gaining pace, proving that we are heading in the right direction. I am equally excited about returning to fencing and representing Cambridge Women’s Blues team in our Varsity match next spring against Oxford. I look forward to the next two years in continuing to be challenged and shape my thinking on the social innovation landscape.

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