On the 16th of October, in Madrid, Blue Badge Style won the Special Category Prize on urban environment at The Social Innovation Tournament. The tournament sponsors entrepreneurs whose primary purpose is to generate a social, ethical or environmental impact across Europe and we’re honoured to have picked up the prestigious award.
It was a remarkable point in the Blue Badge Style journey, a journey you could trace all the way back to 25 years ago when Fiona started falling out of her high heels in bars – a sign that she might have multiple sclerosis rather than merely one too many cocktails. Maybe the real starting point was when she set up the Blue Badge Style website. Or when the team grew and the American Lieutenant and Amanda the Commanda decided to come on board and collaborate with her. Perhaps things really started when the app launched. Or even when the first PAD was produced.
There are a lot of possible starting points to this journey but possibly the best place to start this particular exciting and award winning step in our journey would be last May at a quiet meeting in a quiet pub - The Cricketers on Kew Green to be precise.
Some of the Blue Badge Style online team had met up there for one of our semi-regular, informal editorial meetings. We tend to meet every month or so to discuss what we should be thinking about covering on the website – major events that we can tie in with, the best new bars and restaurants, what’s going on at BBS Towers etc – we’ve posted over 1,000 articles now so it’s a welcome chance to brainstorm new ideas and make sure we’re not covering old ground.
Somewhere between talking about off-road wheelchairs, whether the disabled pound should be purple or blue and who we thought would win the World Cup, Fiona’s phone went off.
“Oh my god. I’ve just got an email saying we’re in the final of the European Investment Bank’s Social Innovation Tournament.”
Not having taken any of that in, I asked how hot the wasabi peas were (pub grub is not what it used to be).
“Are you listening? I just said we made it to the final of a European wide tournament. We’re going to Madrid.”
“Wow.” I exclaimed… “They are hot.”
Finally my brain managed to engage and it dawned on me what Fiona was saying. “Really? That’s amazing! What do we do next?”
The Cricketers in Kew
The Social Innovation Tournament was created in 2012, by the European Investment Bank Institute to reward and promote innovative initiatives with an ethical or environmental impact in the fight against social exclusion. Fifteen projects from 171 proposals, submitted by applicants from 26 countries, were selected for this year’s final in Madrid with two sponsorships of €25,000 given to the winners of the main competition and the winners of the special category and a further €10,000 awarded to second place at stake. Each finalist would pitch to a panel of seven social innovation specialists who would then decide who would win first and second prizes as well as the winners of the special category.
But before attending the final in Madrid, there was the bootcamp stage of the tournaent, run by the European Entrepreneurship Foundation and held in the ‘accessibility challenged’ city of Budapest. We stayed at the Kempinski hotel which was had all the required facilities for disabled guests, but much of the rest of the city was not quite so well designed. Going into the bootcamp, we believed that we were going to learn more about Budapest’s access than about presenting Blue Badge Style, but we couldn’t have been more wrong. It was an incredibly useful two days of intense workshopping, pitching and mentoring, full of invaluable lessons.
This was a gruelling two days, sweating it out in hot conditions as our perceptions of how we should be presenting our businesses were completely torn apart. The EEF’s president, Peter Záboji, was cracking the whip. Peter’s a brilliant mentor with a desire to see new entrepreneurs succeed but he has a very honest, no holds barred approach. He wasn’t afraid to tell you if you’re wrong and was willing to upset people as long as it was for the right reasons. He also has an enthusiasm for a glass of Rioja which we share and admire.
Làszlò Bacsa, the head of Demola Budapest, was an equally crucial part of our Social Innovation experience. He’s a man of few words but when he says something you know it will be worth listening to his incisive insights. Budapest was also the first time we came face to face with the redoubtable Luisa Ferreira, who had beautifully masterminded the tournament’s organisation. We had to marvel at her ability to keep on top of so many different things going on around her, yet remain impeccably stylish at the same time.
Meeting the other finalists, all of whom oozed entrepreneurial spirit and a youthful (certainly compared to our group) spirit, was another interesting part of bootcamp. There were so many intriguing and useful ideas which made it to the final and it was as vivacious and eager a bunch of people as you’re likely to meet. It was noticeable that, despite obviously wanting to win, there was a real atmosphere of encouragement, with all the finalists seeing each other as colleagues rather than ‘the competition’. It was a hectic couple of days – made even more chaotic by Budapest’s lack of accessible taxis, which lead to us travelling around by ambulance – but a very enjoyable time too.
The bootcamp had completely destroyed many of our perceptions but it was clear, two months later when we reconvened in Madrid, just how much it had paid off for all the finalists. Everybody had seriously upped their game and no one was in any doubt about it. Tweaks, refinements and indeed wholesale changes had been made to ours and the other finalists’ presentations – the field was, we all agreed, light-years ahead of that which had arrived in Budapest. The final field was extremely strong and we knew that we’d need Fiona and the American Lieutenant to present the pitch of their lives in order to stand a chance.
Like Budapest, like London and like the majority of Europe, we found Madrid to be another city with accessibility challenges. Much has clearly been done to make public spaces easier to navigate, but there is a long way to go in that regard and we found hospitality venues had different definition of accessible to the one we use.
Many of the places we visited, including the venue for the tournament, had steps at the entrances and although there were always staff on hand to help out, we’d really rather see a ramp. We even had to stay at a different hotel to the other finalists because the suggested hotel didn’t have a fully accessible room. We ended up at the Intercontinental which was very accessible and had a real sophisticated charm. Keep an eye out for more details on this and other venues in Madrid coming in the near future.
Security guards provided: “a different approach to accessibility”
Our first day in Madrid was a day of preparation. The second day was the competition itself. Fiona and the American Lieutenant stepped up to the plate to present Blue Badge Style to the team of experienced judges. After an emotional and heartfelt introduction from the AL, Fiona charmed, informed and entertained the audience and judges alike, before expertly fielding questions. She claims not to remember a moment of it, perhaps a result of being ‘in the zone’? As for the AL? Well, he claimed to have seen one or two people in the audience wiping tears from their eyes (a suggestion later backed up with evidence from the judges). After presenting, all any of the fifteen finalists could do was wait for the announcement at a swanky ceremony that evening.
A packed and brilliant field of finalists!
That evening was really something special – drinks and dinner at the glorious Casino de Madrid. For us the cherry on top came after dinner when the tournament winners were announced. None of us could quite believe what we were hearing when the room was told that the winner of the Special Category Prize on urban environment is… Blue Badge Style. This was a genuine shock – not least because we weren’t expecting to even be in the running for the urban environment section of the competition.
We were honestly stunned to have won such an important and prestigious award. Perhaps our more cynical sides should have seen the fact they’d installed a ramp up to the stage as a clue of things to come. On stage Fiona was handed a trophy and a microphone but was lost for words – something that has rarely, if ever, occurred before. It was an amazing feeling but a slightly odd one too as all the other finalists were so deserving and every project was aiming to make society better. In our short time with them we saw so much passion, ingenuity, hard work and goodwill and we wish all of them the best. That’s not to say we weren’t ecstatic to have won, we’ll never forget the standing ovation as Fiona and the AL took the stage.
We want to thank all the judges, the EIB, everyone who has worked towards making Blue Badge Style what it is today and, most importantly, the Blue Badge Style community of readers and users, without whom we would be nothing. With the investment from this tournament win we hope to get more PADs in use, more venues on our app and more people engaging to create a more inclusive society.
The victorious Blue Badge Style Team
At the end of the evening’s festivities we left in a blaze of glory but we departed through the back door. Ironically, the main entrance to the building was not accessible – far from it in fact. The building in which the presentations took place was not step free either. Nor did it have an adapted toilet. This all went to serve as a poignant reminder of how much work there is to do. So yes, it’s been a long journey from that pub garden in Kew to our win in Madrid. It’s an incredible honour and a fitting tribute to this small but committed team who’ve shown that a lot can be achieved with passion, drive and a genuine desire to help people. But we hope it will just be one stage in a longer journey. An early chapter in a longer story.
After an exiting ceremony, an unceremonious exit
We think this can be the beginning of something important, a leaping off point from where we can help change attitudes towards disability throughout Europe. Blue Badge Style is about more than providing access descriptions – that’s what we do, but what we’re about is more important. We want to provide an outlet and create a community that understands that less able people are defined by more than their impairments, that style and disability need not be mutually exclusive and that a more inclusive society is a better society. Our reviews, articles, PADs and our app are all constituent parts to our simple but powerful ethos of ‘freedom shared’.
Now, with the backing of the European Social Innovation Tournament, it’s time to spread that freedom.