February 24, 2020

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The Mainstreaming of Social Entrepreneurship [and Disruption]: The Good, Bad & Ugly

System change is in the air, but if it is to be effective, the environment needs to be more central to the discourse.


By John Elkington

Like many things in life, disruption comes in many forms: the good, bad and, not to put too fine a point on it, ugly. 

This year’s Skoll World Forum in Oxford, the pre-eminent global gathering of social entrepreneurs and those who help scale their work, took “Disruption” as its theme — showcasing innovation and entrepreneurial solutions designed to disrupt the unsustainable, unfair status quo.

If I stand back and take a triple bottom line perspective, it seems that the headline message is that the lights are increasingly green for many societal challenges, switching from amber to green for the economy—but still bright red for the environment. 

The Skoll World Forum 2013: Barometer for Social Enterprise

To take society first, the world’s social innovators, entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and investors have made extraordinary progress during the past decade. Indeed, one of the nicest summaries of this year’s Forum came from Mark Cheng, Director of the U.K. end of Ashoka, a leading social enterprise network founded in 1980 by Bill Drayton.

As Mark notes, the Forum “serves as a useful barometer for how the climate of social enterprise is changing.” [I’ll come back to the climate shortly.] In 2004, the Skoll World Forum, he goes on, “was Skoll World Forum 2013all about celebrating the unknown social entrepreneurs, helping to give them global recognition, credibility and a platform to engage with policy leaders and large corporations. In that task, it has succeeded brilliantly — over the past decade, social enterprise has become mainstream. Jeff Skoll picks out the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus in 2006 as a watershed moment; equally significant was Al Gore being named a Nobel laureate the following year.”

Five Top Insights of Skoll World Forum

Here are five of Mark’s top 10 list of insights as he walked the Forum halls and joined various expert panels — and from here on I quote him directly, in edited form, on what he sees as good disruption:

1) It’s about changing the system, Stupid: Whether it was this year’s Skoll awardee Carne Ross, whose organization Independent Diplomat is seeking to turn the closed, rigged game of international diplomacy on its head, or Salman Khan’s Khan Academy, a model for free, online tuition that is re-shaping how education is delivered, system change is the new game in town.

2) To solve our problems, we need more problem solvers: Bill Drayton outlined his view on what Ashoka considers the next big idea in moving the field — what he calls “framework change.” In his view, to fix our broken systems, we need to accelerate the number of people who see themselves as changemakers, and ultimately create a world in which everyone is a changemaker.

3) Scale through collaboration: I sensed a strong undercurrent of feeling that scaling impact need not be the same thing as scaling an organization. Partnerships, franchising, scaling through influence, and encouraging imitation — these were all strong topics that emerged in conversations.

4) The silos are breaking down: Are the NGO, the corporation and the government agency reaching the end of their shelf life in their current form? When Sarah Severn from Nike spoke about integrating sustainability into the DNA of business, and Maura O’Neill, chief innovation officer of USAID, spoke about re-engineering the aid model in language any corporate CEO would recognize, it was hard to tell who was the NGO and who was the corporate leader.

5) Here comes the social intrapreneur: This year Mark “glimpsed the emergence of a new beast prowling the halls — the self-identified social intrapreneur, who works to enact change from within an organization or political system.”

Mainstreaming of Social Innovation

Stand back, and you see evidence of the gradual mainstreaming of social innovation into the wider economy, at least in some countries. This is happening either through innovative partnerships between major companies and leading social entrepreneurs, something that Volans has helped to pioneer, or by the evolution of social intrapreneurship within the companies themselves — a trend we flagged in our 2008 report The Social Intrapreneur.

But, back to that triple bottom line perspective, there is one part of the agenda that is still mainly stuck on red — one where we normally think green, the environment.

If you think back to when Al Gore was racing around the world with his An Inconvenient Truth PowerPoint presentation, it would have been very hard to imagine the abject failure of last year’s Rio+20 summit. And, really, who would have imagined that the European Parliament would vote to undermine the Emission Trading Scheme, long vaunted as Europe’s contribution to saving the world?

Related: Changing Business As Usual: 3 Questions for Non-profit & For-profit Innovation Leaders

So while I very much welcome the new Social Progress Index, spotlighted at the 2013 Skoll World Forum, and designed to show how well countries provide for the non-economic needs of their citizens, I fret that there is only one key indicator category (Ecosystem Health) covering the wider environment, although a second (Air, Water, Sanitation) will presumably address air and water quality issues.

Social Progress IndexIt’s The Climate, Stupid

It will certainly be helpful to flag and rank good countries and bad in terms of a range of progress indicators, but the history of civilizations underscores the uncomfortable fact that, time and again, the natural environment has turned ugly on us. One civilization after another has been terminally disrupted by ecosystem collapse, often fueled by climate change.

Anyone who read Bill McKibben’s searing overview of the “new math” of climate change will probably be wondering whether the systemic dysfunctions in our global economy, which the 50 initial nation states covered by the Social Progress Index are so conspicuously failing to tackle in a timely and effective way, don’t demand a more planet-centered version of the Index?

As I put it to a key player involved in the Index while we were in Oxford, one could be sublimely happy and healthy while unwittingly aboard the Titanic.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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