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.”


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!

Spotlight: Paul Miller


What drives you?

I want to see really talented tech people working on stuff that matters.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

For one, the Cabinet Office and Nesta have been very supportive. I feel there is lots of enthusiasm in the government to create a market for social investment in the UK. At the same time, technology has made a huge difference: prototyping social ventures has become cheaper and faster. If social entrepreneurship were only about brick and mortar, it would be very cost-intensive but going down the tech road makes it easier and opens more opportunities.

Currently reading

‘Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy’ by Brian Robertson which outlines an alternative to more conventional ways to manage and structure organisations – we’re trying it out at BGV.


“I used to work in a political think tank, but you could say that I got bored by trying to change things through writing. I realized that for the same price of writing a report, we could prototype a startup! So I went on to launch School of Everything for continuous adult learning. It was lonely and difficult to build a for-profit startup in adult education; definitely not a very glamorous topic at the time. Then came the 2008 crisis which derailed everything just as we needed the next round of investment. As part of that process, I realized that I could have done a lot better if I had had someone who had done this stuff before. You really don’t need much for your first venture, so we (me and Anna Maybank) designed Bethnal Green Ventures to help in that situation.”



Field Study: UK

Field Study [n.]: Preliminary research

Since my initial field visits to the UK I have been able to update this post with the most recent study of social enterprise in the UK,  published on 15 September, 2015 by Social Enterprise UK. Supported by Santander, Social Enterprise UK surveyed 1,159 social enterprises via phone and online surveys. To date, this makes it the largest study of social enterprise in the UK. I ask every Social Venturer which countries they consider leaders in the field of supporting social entrepreneurs, and most of them respond with the UK. Let’s see what this is all about.

#SocEnt in the UK are outperforming their mainstream counterparts. Click To Tweet

The survey reports 70,000 social enterprises in the UK making up £25 billion of the UK economy providing nearly one million jobs. The study finds that social enterprise in the UK is thriving outperforming their mainstream counterparts (small and medium sized enterprises) in most business areas such as growth in turnover and workforce, job creation, innovation (how do you measure that? Serious question!), and diversity in leadership. In terms of new business formation, social enterprises score 35% compared to their commercial counterparts at 11%. 52% of social enterprises managed to increase their turnover over the last year while the conventional startup sector stands at 40%. A growing number of social enterprises (14%) have been able to enter into export or licensing, and if you are not convinced yet that social enterprise rules in the UK, let  this sink in: “With 31% of social enterprises working in the most deprived communities in the UK, the more deprived the area, the more likely you will be to find a social enterprise working there.” Doesn’t that just sound like the textbook idea of social entrepreneurship?

State of Social Enterprise Report 2015, p. 10 (link above)

State of Social Enterprise Report 2015, p. 10 (link above)

These are just some highlights from the report. An updated version of the report is published every six months so if you are interested in learning more about social enterprise trends in the UK, I highly recommend a thorough read!

In terms of actors in the social venture support landscape, it is worth mentioning Nesta and Unltd as well as the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network based within Unltd. I had an informal meeting with Nesta and had the chance to talk to Jessica Stacey who ran Nesta’s research on impact accelerators before joining Bethnal Green Ventures in 2015. Nesta has done some fantastic work in the field of startup acceleration; some of their research even focuses on impact accelerators. If you want to learn more, check out their report on Good Incubation and read up on their launch event with contributions from Banks Benitez at Unreasonable Institute and Victoria Fram at Village Capital (who you will learn more about here in the not-so-distant future). Unltd supports social entrepreneurs from idea- to growth-stage through various competitive awards programs. Initiated by Untld, the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network is a membership network for social venture support organizations from around the world. While the majority of their work takes place behind closed doors, I recommend their recently published report From Seed to Impact – Building the Foundations for a High-Impact Social Entrepreneurship Ecosystem.   

Insights from GSEN's first member report, p. 21 (link above)

Insights from GSEN’s first member report, p. 21 (link above)

I went to London for a freelance gig that had me interview and film conscious business leaders at an event at the Royal Bank of Scotland. I spent two days preparing and running the interviews and had only two days to meet with Social Venturers. By no means is this going to be a complete account of social venture support organizations in the UK; it is a start at best. With that said, I was thrilled to be line up meetings with some really inspiring Social Venturers in London. I even managed a trip up North to learn more about social entrepreneurship in Scotland. I am painfully aware of how many organizations I have not been able to visit yet, and I keep a keen eye on my travel itinerary to plan my next UK visit!

For now, enjoy some first highlights of the Social Venturers and support programs I have met and grilled with questions about social entrepreneurship!