Alanis Morrisette, for those of you who didn’t stick with her beyond the highs of Jagged Little Pill, has a song on one of her later albums called ‘So Unsexy‘ – it’s not a wonderful piece of work, but I’ve been reminded of it quite a bit of late whilst beavering away in the social enterprise space, as we are deluged by the sexy, the innovative, the techno-phile and the next big thing.
This post by the ever-provocative and insightful Craig Dearden-Phillips inspired me to get these thoughts down in writing – in the post, Craig wonders whether the social investment marketplace would ever “back the next Mark Zuckerberg” in its current formation, and wonders whether in fact he or she is languishing away in a bedroom, filling in a grant application. Craig was pointing out that backing disruptive innovation is about risk and that there is no ‘social silicon valley’ equivalent in the UK of the kind of network of entrepreneurs and angels who take that risk over in the tech world of the West coast of the US.
It reminded me, though, that actually it is an extraordinarily good time to be a UK-located tech-based social entrepreneur. You could apply to:
– Wayra UnLtd
– Bethnal Green Ventures
– Google’s Global Impact Awards
– Big Issue Invest’s Tech for Good Challenge
– NESTA’s Innovation in Giving
alongside existing pioneering funders like Nominet Trust who focus on this area (and support some of the above) and programmes like Big Venture Challenge that have traditionally had a decent-sized tech slant to them.
This, in my opinion, is a good thing – we need to understand how we better use technology for social good, and put as much resource + energy into that as we do into understanding its potential for neater apps and better games. Where I work has its own slew of tech-based product + service ideas that it wants to implement. And I’m an absolute technophile, excited about all the latest developments (see my latest column on the potential of technology / peer-to-peer in social finance, for example). So the following should be placed in that non-Luddite, ‘not an either-or’ context…
…because I can’t help feeling that we are neglecting, or at least not putting similar sizes of resource, into other, less ‘sexy’ areas. The social enterprise that’s excited me most over the last few months is the Bounce Back Foundation – it does painting + decorating (and other manual work), and employs ex-offenders. And it does it very well. Another which I came away from completely inspired is Fusion 21 – a procurement and housing social enterprise, which uses purchasing scale and aligned social mission to create employment and training. It is fantastic – financially resilient, scaling social impact (1000+ jobs created), and spreading out from its North-West roots to other locations. And creating (real) apprenticeships in construction too.
I could go on with other examples, but what connects these two (though at different stages + scales of their journey) is a) their focus on employment and b) their focus on the mission / social impact; really, painting & decorating and procurement are, in this instance, just means to an end of employment, reduced re-offending, job readiness and so forth. It’s the old “we don’t hire people to bake cookies, we bake cookies to hire people” deal. They are rooted in practicality, and tackling some of the most intractable problems we have right now: youth unemployment and reducing re-offending.
I can tell you where the next socially-minded app or game might come from, or even the most brilliant use of technology in healthcare or crowdfunding which revolutionises its field; but I’m struggling to see where the next social enterprise plumbers, the next social enterprise construction firm, the next social enterprise farm, the next social enterprise garden centre (to add to Social AdVentures), the next housing refit social enterprise, the next loft insulation social enterprise….and so on.
This isn’t arguing for switching investment away from technology – but, to generalise horribly, the things that make it so swift to scale (low cost base, few people needed) also make it less likely to create jobs and employment on the ground. And if the financiers all pile in to tech, because of that potential to scale rapidly, rather than grow incrementally, we may miss a significant opportunity for social enterprise to tackle the biggest problem the country faces right now. It might not be sexy, but it’s hugely needed.