Cartography: London

May 1, 2015

Cartography [n.]: Mapping, review

London was an incredible experience. I met with eight Social Venturers in only three days and spent another two days running across town and filming expert interviews for one of my clients. And I actually need to consult my notebook schedule to recall all the people, organizations, locations and contexts of these terrific encounters.

Why is the #UK ahead in driving #SocEnt? Click To Tweet

I ask all Social Venturers which countries they consider ahead in the field of social entrepreneurship, and most of them reply “the UK”. When I met with Stephen Miller, back then evaluation manager at Unltd, he had some explanation: “I think the UK is ahead for two reasons: Firstly, the government has been very committed to supporting social entrepreneurship and, secondly, we had some very strong actors who have pioneered research and programs the field such as Unltd and Nesta.” I buy that. And still I wonder how come that the UK government saw the potential in social entrepreneurship as early as in the nineties and early 2000’s while countries like Germany and France seem to have ignored it. Do the British have more pioneering spirit? The European Union has jumped on the bandwagon of social innovation (better late than never?!) and are investing in research and competitions on European level (BENISI, TRANSITION, European Social Innovation Competition to name just a few initiatives). yet I can’t shake the feeling that other national governments are waiting to see what happens – failing to understand that this is not the way innovation works.

Thames stroll

Thames stroll

I asked Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures the same question and received a similar answer: “The Cabinet Office and Nesta have been very supportive in driving the social innovation space. The enthusiasm of the government to create a market for social investment has been a great driver for researching and trialing different social enterprise support mechanisms. At the same time, I believe that technology has made a difference: If social enterprises were only about brick and mortar, they would be very cost-intensive. Thanks to the growth and access to tech, however, prototyping social ventures has become a lot cheaper and faster. It opens more opportunities to develop a product or service, go to market, test, and refine or start again without the high up-front investment that is required without the use of technology.”

Thanks to technology prototyping social ventures has become a lot cheaper and faster. Click To Tweet

Richard Brownsdon at Impact Hub Westminster adds: “The social enterprise sector is growing both in terms of social enterprises and support organizations thanks to a shift in this generation’s work-life culture. In today’s purpose economy, younger generations work in dynamic ways; they want jobs with purpose and if they can’t find them, they will create them.”

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Calling it a night

I spent my third day in London at an event called Business for Good – Good for Business. I interviewed and filmed (social) entrepreneurs and business leaders who are striving for more ethical/sustainable/responsible business in the UK and Europe – broadly speaking. One of my interviewees spoke about the role of digital skills for social start-ups and similar to Richard and Paul, he explained to me what great opportunities the internet and related products and services  offer to this generation of emerging entrepreneurs. Being able to write code, or work with programmers, enables tech-related startups to develop  and test their business ideas at relatively low cost thanks to agile development. Social entrepreneurs, in particular, can benefit from this development through reaching their target markets and campaigning for their cause, spreading the word about their solution and activating supporters beyond a local level. I am not saying that this holds for all social entrepreneurs working in any field, but I have come to understand that we experience a wealth of knowledge and resources that was simply not available five or ten years ago; let alone the opportunities of gaining technical skills even through distance learning at low or no cost (Code Academy, DECODED, various MOOCs).

Nesta HQ

Nesta HQ

Another day of my London trip was devoted to meeting with professionals whom I met with simply to hear what they were working on and talk through some of the questions that had bubbled to the top over the past months. With Jessica Stacey I spoke about her experience in impact acceleration, and finding the balance between research and policy, and working in the field. Lily Bowles shared some insights into her time at Village Capital and why she had opted for a masters at London School of Economics. Madeleine Gabriel and Lou-Davina Stouffs at Nesta introduced me to TRANSITION and the Innovation Growth Lab – both aimed at exploring common and best practices in scaling (social) entrepreneurship and trialing support practices, respectively.

All in all, London was a great mix of meeting with Social Venturers who work in support programs, and meeting like-minded people with similar research interests. London is vibrant with social entrepreneurship support and related research, I have only just dipped a toe into the scene and look forward to coming back and meet more Social Venturers!

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