Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the future role of civil society?
I was recently invited to talk to the group responsible for the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society on behalf of UnLtd and the social entrepreneurs with whom I work. Following some scene setting about what the group are looking to achieve, the current challenges facing communities and the scope of the inquiry; one of the members asked me, and another invited guest, whether we were optimistic or pessimistic about the future role of civil society.
Here is my answer.
To state the obvious and somewhat predictable, I believe there will be an important place for social entrepreneurs in the future of civil society. Consistently over the years I have seen social entrepreneurs bring forward enterprising solutions to social issues. Regardless of the challenges of the operating environment, people have come forward to make a change and UnLtd have supported them on their journey.
Whilst we are supporting great ideas and passionate individuals who are achieving results, I have seen a limited number of social entrepreneurs tackling the root causes of the social issues we experience today, due either to the complexity of wicked social issues, or because they are stuck in the day to day operations trying to survive and grow. We are continually looking to improve our ability to support social entrepreneurs and so our own journey must be one which enables us to understand the barriers which prevent a larger proportion of social entrepreneurs from being able to look beyond their individual solution. We need to invest in collaborative approaches to address broader systemic challenges.
However, the burden of responsibility cannot solely be carried by those individuals without support. We exist to provide that support, but how do we help those who are not within our network to start up and thrive, or support others to do so?
In 2015, myself and a small team of colleagues in Birmingham were tasked with exploring how we could reach more social entrepreneurs with the same resources. It might have been easy for us to assume we understood the challenges facing social entrepreneurs, but we decided to make sure and test our assumptions. Our first step was to speak to as many people as possible, in fact, we conducted in-depth interviews with over 50 people, both social entrepreneurs and supporters of, and tested the results on over 1,000 more social entrepreneurs. The results were in, and the challenges and opportunities were clear, some even a little surprising. Of those that stood out, were just how regularly social entrepreneurs experience feelings of isolation. Social entrepreneurs are also finding it hard to access funds beyond seed capital, because they simply don’t have the resources to spare for failed attempts. We also discovered some powerful actions that can have a transformative effect for social entrepreneurs.
So we had our answers and so began a series of prototypes to test out ideas and methods looking at each of the challenges and prototyping solutions. Many of the ideas we tested were not new ideas but slight adaptations which allowed us to test their impact for social entrepreneurs. We have used and commissioned research to understand ideas we saw around us that were working in helping people to connect, collaborate and share. We will be sharing the results in the form of a Playbook which will map out ideas we love, tools, methods and solutions we have tried, and more importantly, how others can do the same. We are also working to map the state of social entrepreneurship in Birmingham and the wider West Midlands Combined Authority area which will be replicated if it proves useful for social entrepreneurs in navigating support and finding their own allies.
To come back to the question. I am positive about the role of civil society and the willingness of citizens to act but there are three challenges we cannot ignore:
- We need to continue to find creative ways of supporting people to connect, share learning and support each other, this will be critical in embedded solutions coming from communities.
- A sense of community is not something which can be dictated by top down idealism, active participation is required. Less empowered individuals and communities need people who they know and trust to help break down the few visible and many more invisible barriers standing in the way.
- We still need large scale solutions, and to drop the hang-ups about scale and innovation. Some ideas are worth spreading and innovations worth scaling.
- Massive urban growth and climate change require city administrations to realise both the legitimacy and potential of local communities and grassroots movements. Small actions build to large movements.
Limiting Financial Burdens
- For social entrepreneurs trialling new technologies and solutions, the impact of BREXIT and loss of European funds for R&D will be a stymie if not replaced.
- Successful ventures are limited by restricted funds which prevent them from doing what they do best, turning money into impact.
- We need to invest in opportunities for collectivism so that social entrepreneurs and stakeholders can work beyond their individual solutions, and in collaboration to resolve social issues.
We seek answers to community resilience through social entrepreneurship and community participation to build the bridges to the future without destroying what already exists.
To find out more about how we are doing this get in touch, and finally, to share some of my favourite examples of people, and places making things happen;
- Paris, Democracy and Participatory Budgeting
- Impact Hub Brum, Open Project Night and F*** Up Nights.
- Tessy Britton, Participatory City
- Co Lab Dudley
- Building Futures, an UnLtd programme supporting social entrepreneurs building resilience in the built environment