Transforming the Social Enterprise and Social Innovation Landscape

David Wilcox, the founder of ReachScale (an organization that aligns the social responsibility goals of corporations with high potential social entrepreneurs), writes about three underlying trends that, according to him, will transform the social innovation and social enterprise landscape. For him, recent changes in the social business landscape suggest a “convergence of trends that could lead to seismic changes as corporate, social innovation and sustainability circles engage”. This is quite a shift from his widely-read, highly influential blogpost from last year, which highlighted the differences between social innovation and social entrepreneurship. What made him shift his perspective so radically, so soon? The kinds of changes he’s been observing in the world of social enterprise, which he itemizes as three underlying trends:

Trend 1: All Business Will Become “Social/Commercial”
There is a long list of social/commercial businesses — Wikipedia, Ebay, Baidu — and they represent the future of business. In the words of Unilever CEO Paul Polman:

“We are finding out quite rapidly that to be successful long term we have to ask: what do we actually give to society to make it better? We’ve made it clear to the organization that it’s our business model, starting from the top.”

Trend 2: Competition to Collaboration
In order to move beyond the prevailing culture of contest and create a more just and sustainable social order, we need to critically reexamine the concept of competition itself. Competition, as the term is widely used today, tends to conflate two distinct sets of ideas that need to be disentangled. When people use the word “competition,” they are often referring, simultaneously, to (a) the pursuit of excellence, innovation, and the establishment and productivity within a market system; and (b) the self-interested pursuit of mutually exclusive gains, with resultant winners and losers.

Once we disaggregate conventional notions of competition in this way, we can see that the most valuable aspects of “competition”- the pursuit of excellence, innovation, and productivity-are not contingent on self-interested behaviors, and they need not result in winners or losers. On the contrary, they assume their most mature form within a framework of cooperation and mutual gains-or a framework of collaboration.

Trend 3: Unlocking the Entrepreneurial Human Spirit
Microfinance has opened up entrepreneurship for a couple of billion who otherwise would be in the depths of poverty. Instead, their courage, skill and hard work have made them entrepreneurs. Goonj and multiple other models need to be scaled globally to add their unique impacts to the global economy. ReachScale works with partners like Babson to design an important next step: invite multiple stakeholders to design and build scaling engines that streamline growth commitments and reduce risks so portfolios of “most innovative” social enterprises can be scaled.

The three trends demonstrate the shift from the status quo to a situation where businesses and entrepreneurs alike are collaborating and co-creating socially impactful systems and programs. An interesting he point he makes is by asking the question, “What is the largest social enterprise in the world?” or “What firm provides free services globally to rich and poor that enables learning and commerce?” The answer, surprisingly (at least at first), is Google. As he writes,

At first there is surprise and then it is obvious. That this social enterprise is highly profitable is a stellar example of the ability to make money at scale when solving global challenges.

This was one of the most interesting points he made, because you don’t often think of these Internet giants like Google or Wikipedia as social enterprises, but in fact they are, since they’re serving the widest customer bases around the world, for free. Since these are the businesses that most consumers engage with on the most regular basis, it only makes sense that they begin to set the tone for other businesses as well. It’ll be interesting to see how these trends pan out over the coming months. Thoughts?

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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