The RSA



What’s real social enterprise?

The ‘revolution’ in social enterprise is much wider and more radical than traditional definitions allow for, argues Geof Cox FRSA.

The articles on social enterprise by Geoff Mulgan and others in the summer edition of the RSA Journal raise some good questions about whether social entrepreneurs are fulfilling their potential. They also provide a welcome antidote to the usual pre-perestroika-Pravda flavour of much writing in this area, which only tells the good news! However, the pieces also miss a more fundamental question about the adequacy of the usual conceptual frameworks for analysis of what is really happening in social enterprise.

This issue first opens up around the vexed question of how many ‘social enterprises’ there really are. The truth is that there is an ‘official’ social enterprise ‘sector’ that continues to propagate the figures quoted in the articles: that there are 60,000 to 70,000 social enterprises in the UK.  But in addition to this there is a much larger social enterprise movement of at least a third of a million people and organisations actively using business models and methods to achieve a social mission.

The recent Third Sector Research Centre work on measuring the scale of UK social enterprise is helpful in addressing the political construction of the ‘social enterprise’ concept.

Moreover, the most recent UnLtd survey found that if they had access to the right support about one in three people would like to be social entrepreneurs; a startling figure, but tellingly close to Dr Rebecca Harding’s research on the numbers of social entrepreneurs. This suggested some time ago that there are over 230,000 ‘hidden social enterprises’ in the UK, and that over a third of all new entrepreneurs would like to be social entrepreneurs.

The key point here is that the ‘official’ social enterprise sector is based on the dated model of ‘the firm’, rather than the new reality of the network, on mitigating market failure rather than developing a whole new way of organising human affairs, and on conventional business growth models rather than the now rather more pressing issue of the limits to growth.

We have to shift to a new paradigm. This means shifting focus from the relatively small number of social enterprises that happen to fit an official definition, or can be used to forward a government agenda, towards the much larger movement of alternative lifestyle businesses, portfolio workers, organisations with or without staff, activists, freelancers and networks working not to redeliver public services but in more challenging and more internationally relevant areas like the environment, local food, fair trade and the open source movement.

In this context Geoff Mulgan’s count of recent social enterprise disappointments looks plain old-fashioned. The conventional idea of business ‘growth’ is precisely what most social entrepreneurs are trying to get away from. Not only because the coming adjustment of our whole economy has to be towards buying, transporting and using much less, but also because the big bland brands world of globalised business, cloned high street and remote call-centre robs us of real human contact, value and fulfillment.

The networked home worker, not driving into an energy-hungry office or factory every day, taking some time to shop locally and cook some slow food, spend time with the kids, get involved in their community and focus on well-being instead of growth; they are not going to be social enterprise celebrities, for sure, but they might nevertheless be driving more radical change.

If this sounds to you like a ‘place in the country’ idyll, please note that I’m working with precisely this kind of social enterprise network among, for example, people with learning disabilities in the UK, and women house-bound by caring responsibilities in an all-but closed-down former closed town in northern Russia.

The really important questions here are about how social enterprise networks can replace conventional investment, whether we can achieve economies of scale while empowering local people and communities, how we can freely share knowledge but retain our originality, and how sharing can reduce our need for hundreds and hundreds more things that don’t really make us happy.

And we need to develop an entirely new brand-paradigm for this kind of social enterprise: one that will propagate brands that are participative and community-owned, that are about collaborating more and consuming less, and that can combine the trust in the familiar that drives conventional brands with a new respect for the unique and the local and the individual.

These are profoundly challenging questions that cannot be resolved with the usual business strategy tools, and that are rarely broached in social enterprise circles.  I wonder if the range of skills and experience in an organisation like the RSA might better help us make the paradigm shift social enterprise really needs?


Geof Cox is a freelance social enterprise developer currently working on a number of ground-breaking projects, including a new fair trade model for hard-pressed families with Oxfam in Russia, and the UK-wide roll-out of the miEnterprise supported self-employment network for people with disabilities or other barriers to paid work.

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