Insights from Taiwan — What makes a good ecosystem?

By Reza Mirza.

Sources cited at the bottom. In queue to be posted at the 

Cut back to a year ago, before dumplings and porridge became staples in my diet. Before I flew to Taiwan to map out the social innovation landscape, I was in San Francisco working for a digital innovation agency. A brief call with Joseph Wong, a mentor and former professor changed all that. Who gives up an opportunity to research a burgeoning field with the capacity to change the world while on a tropical island? Not me – much to my mother’s chagrin.

It’s ironic that despite its speckled history, Taiwan has a thriving third sector. Speckled might be a tame way of describing the authoritarian regime’s Martial Law, which severely limited the autonomy of civil organizations. However, in the early 90s (just a few years after the lifting of Martial Law) Taiwan’s non-profit sector saw the development of commercial approaches and revenue generating arms[1]. (That’s another interesting fact our field work and literature review has revealed about Taiwan’s social enterprises: they’re less market-driven and often revenue-generating non-profits.[2])

The Taiwanese Ministry of Interior pegs the number of registered non-profits at over 60,000 and near 5000 for social enterprises. It’s no accident that the non-existent SE sector has grown so rapidly in a decade. Inspired by a EU program to develop the third sector, the Taiwanese government followed suit and in particular supported non-profits creating jobs for target groups – transforming many non-profits into social enterprises [3].

Here’s an interesting case study: while visiting Taipei’s famous hot springs, we learnt our spring was a private-partner partnership. The beauty of such an arrangement is that public resources are kept public and protected while still promoting competition and innovation. Instead of a single Minister of Hot Springs dictating how the springs are run, an individual entrepreneur runs it. And unlike government officials, the entrepreneur’s livelihood depends on the success of the spring. It’s not just Taiwan: public-private partnerships are taking off around the world. KPMG identified huge successes in India, Sweden has opened public-private hospitals, and there’s the Canada Line rapid transit system. And it’s no surprise, private-public companies have been shown to be more profitable than purely public enterprises and have even been attributed to the Taiwan Miracle, its period of rapid industrialization[4].

During a Taipei entrepreneur meet-up we attended, there was an exchange that was telling of the gulf between the government’s mandates and its actions. The organizer of the event attempted to introduce a special guest from the Taiwanese SMEA (Small and Medium Enterprise Administration). I’ve never seen someone try so hard to refuse an introduction as this mumbling fellow. Finally after some prodding, the government representative discussed some ministry programs available to entrepreneurs, but exclaimed that not enough people are aware of those services. It’s funny that the representative didn’t connect his disinterest in connecting with the community with his ministry’s failure at marketing of their programs.

This is in stark contrast with Silicon Valley. Like many, I was drawn to the Valley by its technology sector. This reverse brain-drain sustains the Valley’s dominance, but doesn’t explain how it came to be. The answer is that Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist without cooperation by public and private institutions. Top research institutions like Stanford and CalTech won lucrative military contracts from WW2 to the Cold War that funded high-tech research[5]. And to this day, Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco regularly engages with tech companies as he did with faberNovel, my former employer. For Taiwan to sustain its rapid growth and become a social enterprise hub, it needs to hasten its dialogue with its third-sector to bridge the existing chasm.

[1] Kuan, Y. and Wang, S. (2010), “Taiwanese Social Enterprises: Characteristics, Development Trends and Effects”,  Paper presented at the  International Conference on “Social Enterprises in Eastern Asia: Dynamics and Variations”, Taipei, June 14-16.

[2] Kuan, Y., Chan, K., Wang, S. (2011). The governance of social enterprise in Taiwan and Hong Kong: a comparison

[3] Kuan, Y., Kao, A., & Pelchat, M. (2003). Governance, Organizational Effectiveness and the Nonprofit sector. Taiwan Report.

[4] Pluta, J. (1979). PUBLIC FINANCE QUARTERLY, Vol. 7 No. I, 25-46.

[5] The Secret History of Silicon Valley

Social Enterprise Solutions to an Aging Population

Article by Wendy Pan

I was very excited heading to Net Impact’s speakers’ series today. One of the featured social entrepreneur today is Johnny Wang, a U of T alum graduated with a civil engineering degree. U of T rocks!

Since my iPad just synched and I lost all of my notes, I will simply type down major learning points from the seminar. Website link for this social enterprise – iHealth – is provided below.

1) We have to try to understand the issues of aging societies. Out of 39 OECD counties, 35 are already aging societies. (When a society has 7% of the population> 65 years of age, it is defined as an aging society. ) To have everyone live longer is a good thing, to deal with the social implications of longer lives is another. An aging population would mean we have less active labor to support elders. Taken Taiwan as an example, in 2022, there would be 4.5 workers supporting 1 retiree; In 2032, this ratio will become 3 to 1. Having such a high percentage of ”old people” walking around is unimaginable, not to mention its impacts on taxation and local healthcare system. To deal with the negative consequences of aging societies, Japan and Sweden have come up with many innovative solutions . Many countries are now trying to replicate those solutions, while modifying them to fit the local ecosystems.

2) Aging societies create tremendous opportunities for social entrepreneurs to explore, from flexible long term insurance plan, medical information platform, to meal delivery services, caretaker training and certification. This industry is only going to grow, not to shrink. If you are a driven entrepreneur, don’t wait. Start paying attention to opporunities in this emerging industry. In fact, I would love to do more research and learn about upcoming trends in serving elders.

3) There are A LOT to learn about the elderly service industry. Many young new graduates, including myself, are not well-aware of the problems and solutions currently exist in this sector. After all, who would want to think about getting old when he/she’s still young? However, one day we would all have to face these issues, one way or another. When our parents are old, we could be caring for 4 elders at a time. (my parents and my future husband’s parents) It’s not only a social pressue, but practical family pressue. I wonder how we could educate the youth today and prepare them for critical future tasks.

Let’s hope social innovations give us some answers here.


1)我們必須盡量了解老齡化社會的問題。出於經濟合作與發展組織的39個國家中,35個已經是老齡化社會了。 (當一個社會的人口年齡> 65歲的有7%,它被定義為老齡化社會。)讓每個人都能活得長久是一個很好的事情,可是處理長壽帶來的社會影響又是另一回事。人口老齡化將意味著我們必須用有限的勞動力去支持退休人群。拿台灣作為一個例子,在2022年,將會每4.5個在業勞動力要支持一位退休員工。而在2032年,這一比例將變成3比1。有如此高比例的“高齡人口”在街上走都是是不可想像的,更不用提它對稅收和地方醫療系統的影響了。為了應對老齡化社會帶來的消極後果,日本和瑞典已經提出了許多創新的解決方案。現在,許多國家都在試圖複製這些解決方案,同時對模式其進行有效複製,以適應當地的人文生態系統。


3)許多年輕的新畢業生是不了解老人服務行業的。包括我自己。我們並不了解目前在這一領域存在著的很多看似無法解決的問題,和目前階段的解決方案,。畢竟,谁愿意在他/她還年輕時就去想變老呢?然而無論我們如何視而不見,有一天,我們都必鬚麵對這些問題。當我們的父母都老了,我們就必須要照顧4個老人- 我們自己的父母和我未來的丈夫/妻子的父母。這不僅是一個的社會的壓力,同時也是家庭的壓力。我不知道我們如何能教育現在的青年人,這為未來作準備的關鍵任務。