Social Innovators and Entrepreneurs

by Jonny Hankins

Social Innovators and EntrepreneursAs promised last month, in this post I would like to continue to look at innovation for social good and continue my investigation of entrepreneurship within food production.

In November thanks to a generous grant from the Bassetti Foundation I attended the SAGE conference on behalf of Innovation Excellence.

The 2013 SAGE Conference: Place, Politics & Potential, was held on November 9th and 10th 2013 in Worcester Massachusetts and promoted by the Worcester Solidarity and Green Economy Alliance.

The conference was organized into workshops, each addressing different issues surrounding the growth and promotion of entrepreneurship and innovation within the solidarity and green economy.

Invited speakers included representatives of funding bodies, cooperatives and universities, as well as many entrepreneurial ventures in the field. Representatives were drawn from food production start-ups, renewable energy companies and alternative funding sources offering micro loans, to name a few.

The objectives for the conference as a whole included improving network relations for local entrepreneurs as well as providing those working within the broad field of ‘social innovation’ with information about funding and legal services.

Many of the attendees could in fact be described as social entrepreneurs, either working for or creating businesses whose aim is to work for social good ( I include those funding such projects here). This is a large and expanding sector of the innovation and entrepreneur community, described by the Schwab Foundation for Social Innovation as ‘driving social innovation and transformation in various fields including education, health, environment and enterprise development. They pursue poverty alleviation goals with entrepreneurial zeal, business methods and the courage to innovate and overcome traditional practices.

A social entrepreneur, similar to a business entrepreneur, builds strong and sustainable organizations, which are either set up as not-for-profits or companies’.

One of the problems that these types of business run into is the difficulty in raising money, as although many are for profit institutions their primary aims may not be to make money, and this may not be fully understood or appreciated by mainstream lending organizations.

Depending on your point of view, this situation could be seen as socially unjust, and discussion around the matter has led to the invention of the term ‘economic democracy’. We could possibly define this as entrepreneurs having equal access to funding, regardless of their aims and stated goals. There are several models under development aimed at study of the phenomena, several of which were presented during the conference.

If we look back to another of my posts from last month in which I described Andrew Maynard’s Plenary Speech from the S.NET Conference in Boston, we find that he touched upon this issue too.

Maynard argues that the modern form of innovation has become detached from an older form of social innovation, in that today its goal is to make money, and not to solve social problems. Innovation can and often does improve life, but this is largely by good fortune rather than planning. I would go further and suggest that working towards innovation for social good could be seen as a move towards responsible innovation, and so should be funded as any other forms are.

Funding opportunities include: Local Credit Unions often offer financing for such enterprises where banks are unwilling to commit, and there is a network of small lenders that invest in such projects. These investment organizations typically take small amounts of money from their investors and offer micro loans, with low interest rates and favourable terms. The US government also has a fund aimed at promoting such initiatives, and representatives of various organizations were on hand at the conference to offer advice and guidance.

One representative told us that the money he has to invest in micro loans comes from a very particular group of people. They are willing to invest in an enterprise that is operating for the social good even though the return is low, and the risk of losing the money may be high. They might be described as investors for social good, and I think present an interesting model within the development of Responsible innovation.

Events such as the SAGE Conference are without doubt useful for the social entrepreneur and innovation community. The event was extremely participatory, informal, and low expense. Local food was donated and cooked by volunteers, we all tasted local products and it was a good platform for promoting new businesses. A far cry from the standard high finance high energy innovation conference.

I would like to thank the Bassetti Foundation for funding my participation at the conference and wish all of the businesses working within the social innovation sector my very best wishes for the coming year.

In my next post I will continue my look at social innovation related to food and the green economy with a review of Cristina Grasseni’s new book Beyond Alternative Food Networks.

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Jonny HankinsJonny Hankins is the Foreign Correspondent for Bassetti Foundation for Responsible Innovation. He serves on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Responsible Innovation, participates in the Virtual Institute for Responsible Innovation, and is the Responsible Innovation Editor for Innovation Excellence. Trained as a sociologist at the Victoria University of Manchester UK, his interests range from innovation in the renewable energy sector, bio and medical ethics and the role of politics in innovation, to questions of ethical and moral responsibility. He lives in Boston, MA where he is also a musician, actor and street performer.