Art, poetry, science and business collide. We’ve had a week or so to mull over the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF). This event in Edinburgh is probably the world leading conference on social enterprise.
SEWF showed us that we need to create a vision. A vision of a better world. That we need to engage beyond government and the usual channels. That we need to talk with artists, dreamers, philosophers, activists, and more, to help articulate this vision. That we cannot keep merely protesting austerity. That we can create solutions and offer an alternative, compelling vision. One based on business.
SEWF showed us what can be achieved if national and local governments work with social enterprise. That collective, transparent leadership can create a flourishing ecosystem that helps to create the inclusive prosperity we so desperately need in our communities.
But there is a danger. As a sector we are fond of talking about ‘new paradigms’. Sometimes the highfalutin’ rhetoric can tip over into a self-congratulatory tone despite social enterprise still being somewhat niche. So the warm words and motivational speaking need to influence and go somewhere.
SEWF showed us that we need to mobilize in communities. Amongst aspiring entrepreneurs, in schools, across existing networks and that we need to massively engage in the public life of our communities. One thing working in Plymouth - the UK’s first (and best of course) Social Enterprise City - has taught me is that there is a need to seek any opportunity to talk about social enterprise. Be it amongst lawyers, school children and the media. At business networking meetings, careers fairs and local political gatherings. Those long hours at cold community centres on damp November evenings. If you go the extra mile to talk passionately it can, eventually, turn into action.
Scotland aside, there is still a lack of action from the UK government and local authorities to support the sector in a profound way. As an example, the few gritted teeth references to ‘inclusive growth’ that have been woven into some of our economic strategies were hard fought and won in an policy world that is still dominated by prescriptive definitions of growth and obsession with traditional business sectors.
We need national and local government to radically step up. SEWF showed us that the Scottish government just seemed to ‘get’ social enterprise. I listened in wonder as John Swinney MSP, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, spoke at the opening of the conference with what seemed like genuine emotion about social enterprise. Even Nicola Sturgeon gave a talk about how social enterprise was integral to their economy. We rarely see that degree of political support in England.
If you are lucky, you can get some forward thinking councils. We have had this in Plymouth. Allied to a strong, locally owned and run social enterprise network and an engaged university we achieved some great things - gaining the Social Enterprise City badge which has lead to millions of pounds of investment for social enterprise; to enhanced commissioning and procurement processes for social value; to decent business support. The pillars of the ecosystem, so much discussed at SEWF, are there.
It is no surprise that many of the Social Enterprise Places, the ‘hotspots’ of activity in the UK - the newest of which, Callander, in central Scotland was announced during the SEWF - are located in areas of strong social enterprise infrastructure: robust networks, engaged councils and education, business advice, progressive policy and visionary collective leadership.
SEWF showed us that we need an economy where productive businesses create decent work and the where the dividends of prosperity are more equally shared and create well-being. But look where that happens - in social enterprise. It is social enterprises that are building the inclusive, prosperous, productive businesses we need to rejuvenate our high streets, treat workers and pay women fairly and tackle social and environmental issues.
Which brings me to my highlight of SEWF and the title of my blog. Audrey Tang, the Taiwanese government’s Digital Minister, spoke simply and eloquently about the need for digital inclusion, radical transparency and education. When asked for a job description she tore up the standard specification and wrote a poem to guide her work on technology for social good:
“When we see an internet of things let’s make it an internet of beings
When we see virtual reality let’s make it a shared reality
When we see machine learning let’s make it collaborative learning
When we see user experience let’s make it about human experience
And whenever we hear that a singularity is near let’s always remember that plurality is here.”
So, yes, SEWF showed us that we need more vision. More poetry, more art, more science, more nano-satellites and far reaching socially useful tech. If this is social enterprise, this can enrich us, make us noble and equip us for the future.