Esmee Wilcox devotes her seventh blog post in our Emerging Fellows program to the role of social entrepreneurs. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Governments may support social entrepreneurs as instruments of social policymaking, verified by citizens own confidence in their capacity to deliver reductions in inequalities. But present day institutional structures disproportionately eases existing capital into the public realm and influences strategic policy-making. Instead, how might social entrepreneurs lead the dialogue on the shape of the public realm and the relationships between government and enterprise over the next 30 years. What forms ought to be displaced? What new roles ought social entrepreneurs play? What would the benefits be of working towards this future?
We are presently focussed on the current resources at the disposal of the public sector. The generational and debt imbalances are driving an exclusive preoccupation with the financial costs of social support. The consequences of under-investment in public assets are not yet creating solidarity between those capitalising on the current system and those bearing the brunt of building the new system at scale.
Social entrepreneurs are already operating in the public realm, creating political legitimacy through a more direct, meaningful and beneficial relationship between consumers, participants and communities. This challenges the legitimacy of public institutions that – for risk of often abstractly defined failure and the strength of existing capital – are unable to disrupt their organising models. Social innovators also challenge the redundancy in hierarchical, standing organisations that are able to deliver financial accountability and steady-state services but not adapt to the creativity and ingenuity required in tackling today’s social issues.
If we are to change the system within which public benefits are produced we need to secure changes to the scale at which they are addressed, the accountability models that are used, and the ease with which collaborations can happen. In the latter half of this century we might imagine changes that fundamentally alter all three of these conditions favourably towards social entrepreneurs, and allow them to play a more strategic role in the public realm.
Health technology social enterprises, collaborating with self-organised long-term condition community interest companies, are already displacing the power of the capital resources tied up in private insurance and hospital trusts. In this way they are changing the scale of public policy-making from one based on the social structures of government institutions, to one that forms around the social structures of the agents of change.
Automation ought to enable accountability for public resources to get in step with the complexity of social issues being addressed, away from reductionist approaches. In removing the need for labour intensive financial management that perpetuates inflexible, hierarchical organising models. In enabling evaluation frameworks that represent, and don’t distort, the reality of the production of social outcomes. In lowering the transaction costs of work collaborations, the forming and reforming of work vehicles as issues of public interest change.
We can imagine the effect being to free up public sector organisations to focus on the complexity of social issues that will need to be addressed in the latter half of this century. The concern for inequalities manifesting more in basic access to food, energy and water with more of us living in precarious circumstances. Without a vision of how to tackle these types of issues, with newfound freedoms the public sector might simply freeze. Or the dominant position of existing capital might entrench itself.
Social entrepreneurs might seek clues for extending their political legitimacy now in their ability to straddle, influence and mobilise across the public sector, with capital, and in communities. Working with communities to deliberate and create a sense of agency over the use of their collective data assets, drawing in capital investment in ‘healthy-creative’ economic infrastructure on the communities’ own terms.
Social entrepreneurs might play a much more influential role in the public realm in this future, creating new notions of what a public good is, and how to measure, account for and create them. A future where hierarchies are redundant and social capital is in ascendency. What other paradigm shifts might the rise in public influence of social entrepreneur’s result in?
© Esmee Wilcox 2019