Esmee Wilcox inspects the ability of social entrepreneurs in solving wicked problems through her tenth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Our world in 2050 will plausibly be connected in ways that seem unimaginable now. Not least the integration of virtual and physical socio-economies, and artificial and human re-combinations. We will have had to understand how to work with the complexity this creates. We know how difficult it is to bridge different systems. We know how corporations, education systems, and political movements proffer binary answers as a technique for maintaining the status quo. Looking ahead to 2050, how will social entrepreneurs need to be operating then to be more effective in solving wicked issues? What do they need to consider to make strides towards this?
In practice, how many of us have been involved in long-term visioning projects that generate promise and movement but fail to translate into the necessary significant change? Why do we keep repeating the exercises believing it will be different with a tweak? What we’re missing from these technical exercises are the difficult conversations about the new norms, values and behaviours that exist in these new futures, and how they affect us personally. We find it easier to hunt for examples of practice that we can recreate to transition from where we are now to this agreed plausible future. Instead of understanding the conditions – that our own behaviours create - in which these solutions could arise.
Take some of the self-organising movements in health and social care. These are deliberately and explicitly creating the service organisations that are congruent with the theory of agency over personal health. Practitioners interacting with patients have agency and are valued in ways that correspond with the agency and value they are supporting patients to find in themselves. By explicitly working on the values and behaviours that are required in the organisations of the future, they are disrupting and tackling the values and behaviours that are no longer effective in the present.
So what does this mean for social entrepreneurs that are already creating these ‘future fit’ enterprises? The skill is not only in being able to operate in these experimental transition spaces. It is also to create connections and meaning for people whose system is codified in the present. The practice needs to be in making the values and behaviours of everyone visible, explicit and connected to purpose in the new future. To then consciously move away from the present and step into new uncodified practice together, social entrepreneurs have to think about trust. Can social entrepreneurs extend their trust across competing value frameworks to hold the discomfort, the anxiety, and the tension when working in-between systems? Is part of this about being explicit about what’s behind the intention of actions? This would fit with evidence that we can mobilise surprising agents of change when we make our underlying preferences known.
Where social entrepreneurs can help institutional actors step into the transition space, we can imagine the release of band-with to tackle wicked issues. Including the paralysing healthcare conundrums such as investment in long-term wellbeing in conflict with short-term needs, which exist because we cannot conceive of the meta conditions changing. In this way social entrepreneurs are capable of solving the preponderance of highly connected, multi-causal, wicked problems we will become used to seeing as we enter the latter half of the twenty-first century.
At the same time, we ought to consider a parallel question about the impact of further atomisation and divisiveness within society. If social entrepreneurs are to succeed in tackling latter century wicked problems, how might they also work across these incendiary tribal lines?
© Esmee Wilcox, 2019