Social businesses & enterprises: lead, follow or get out of the way
- By David Addison -
- Nov 13, 2012
In this guest blog, Virgin Earth Challenge's David Addison talks of his recent visit to Canada to discuss all things social enterprise...
I spent last week in Western Canada with my colleague Dr. Alan Knight; cramming in as many valuable events, meetings and discussions around people and the planet as we possibly could. Of all the work we did, one particular event sticks in memory…and this particular event took place in the city of Calgary.
Hubs of disruptive environmental innovation such as San Francisco, New York and London, one might argue, are more likely to provide ideal opportunities for pragmatic planet-oriented thinkers and businesses; and these are indeed locations we are active in. But beneath Calgary’s somewhat placid, well-planned, “fifth most liveable city in the world” surface, a truly disruptive network of social entrepreneurs are cooking up a storm.
Social enterprise can mean different things to different people, with some distinguishing between a socially-minded for-profit business and a not-for-profit social enterprise. For me, a social enterprise is any organisation that uses business tools as a force for good: helping to deliver strong returns to people and the planet alongside, rather than at the expense of, a sustainable financial model.
Back to this particular event. Organised by Michael Fotheringham, Research Manager at Calgary Economic Development, and titled: “Building an eco-system for sustainable business success in Calgary”, I hope it leaves little to the imagination about its core aim. However, for those who did not immediately sit up and pay closer attention to that title, the opening sentence of the event’s description reads: “Sustainability is not just about an organization reducing a little waste or a little carbon, it is about fully embedding transformational thinking into every aspect of the organisation”. Now we’re talking!
Why are statements like these of such significance? Whilst we may argue on semantics, any person worthy of their position in a people+planet+profit role should have such rhetoric committed to memory. Well, first of all, this is rhetoric coming right out of the geographical core of the oil sands sector – which isn’t exactly revered internationally for its dedication to sustainable development. And secondly, based on the discussions we had at this meeting and the views of the people in the room, not only do these folks clearly know these subjects inside-out, they are going to make them a reality.
It’s hard to disagree with the assertion that oil exploration and production has been good to Calgary over the past few decades. Everything works, the people are charming, and the University of Calgary and the University of Alberta have many world-leading students, courses and research initiatives. Yet a less-obvious consequence of this well-resourced, socially developed and highly educated region is, I would suggest, that there are a lot of intelligent, driven and well-informed locals that understand the myriad challenges being faced by people and the planet right now, and are going to do something about it.
Alan has written about how he feels Western Canada’s economy, dominated notably by the unconventional production of oil from bituminous sand, is distracted from ambition and creativity. Others have similarly remarked: “If Calgary can pry investors’ wallets from the oil stained hands of the energy sector execs, the city may indeed become Canada’s start--‐up capital.” I personally feel it is not a question of “if” but a question of “when” and just how much Calgary can pry!
Please don’t misunderstand this sentiment. The maths of global warming are still rightly casting a deep chill throughout the international scientific community; and there remain many people in favour of the continued and unrelenting exploitation of the bituminous/oil/tar sands which, as argued by Dr. James E. Hansen, is likely to mean “Game Over for the Climate” if fully realised. But, just as the maths of renewables and efficiency can inspire hope and change, so too can social entrepreneurs execute projects that begin to channel expertise, resources and value generation in more sustainable directions.
Whatever challenges remain in relation to Western Canada’s energy economy - and regardless of what sound bites may emerge from politicians / CEOs / annual reports / company shareholders – that particular social enterprise meeting, and hundreds of other conversations Alan and I had during our week in Canada, made it perfectly clear that ambition and creativity is in fact very much alive in this corner of the world.
Tackling the broad spectrum of challenges faced by humankind is still an incredibly huge and complex task. However might there in reality be an ever-increasing number of people waking up to these challenges and using the tools of business and entrepreneurship to get out there and do something about it – regardless of what sector, culture or geography they find themselves within? Be it combating climate change, managing waste, protecting the ocean, ending the war on drugs, educating and inspiring young people and many, many more causes besides – I reckon the power and results that social enterprise is capable of delivering are already making its presence well and truly felt.
If you are a social-entrepreneur in even the coldest darkest corner of the world, keep up the fight! For change in the way we do business isn’t coming. It’s already here. It’s up to you whether you lead, follow, or get out of the way.
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