When I was just a kid, my father let me help him with projects around the house. One Friday evening, we were in the workshop behind the house, making a small table. I was struggling to cut a piece of wood in a straight line, and as I became increasingly frustrated, the saw became harder to use – and my line became more crooked. Noticing this, my father leaned over and quietly said, “Scott – let the tool do the work.” As if magic, my saw started to cooperate, and the wood seemed almost to cut itself in a clean straight line.
It was a lesson that has stuck with me ever since.
Similarly, many of us struggle to create meaningful change in our world. We see the huge challenges facing society today, and we grow frustrated trying to force our neighborhoods and cities to address these issues. But sometimes the most effective way to build a better world is to be sure the “tools” (the social entrepreneurs) have the optimal environment in which to work.
And that’s exactly why I ended up in another kind of workshop – 40 years later – this past Friday evening.
Thanks to my affiliation with Impact Hub, I had the privilege of co-hosting a select group of 18 people to come discuss this idea of helping people – and the cities we live in – become better “enablers” of social enterprising. Participants were invited from a variety of backgrounds to share stories from academic, financial, government, and enabler perspectives. The premise was simple: if we lock ourselves in a room for a few hours, could we better identify and understand the conditions under which social entrepreneurs develop and thrive, so we can better support and encourage their development?
The answer was a resounding “yes”. But we would need to sacrifice a lot of post-it notes and index cards to get there!
The afternoon kicked off with a series of exercises and discussion groups led by chief Hubmaker Tatiana Glad. Teams were formed and stories of “enabling” were shared and posted on the wall, with specific attention given to *who* was helping the entrepreneur, and *what* the nature of the resulting impact was (improved skills? investment? networking?). This approach helped us visualize patterns, and identify key insights. Stories ranged from individuals helping out other individuals (“I was able to connect my colleague to the right network”) to academics providing research to organizations (“They had good answers, but they seemed to be asking the wrong questions!”) to financiers helping teams build more realistic business models (“We managed to get them investment by helping them clarify how they might actually become profitable”).
The whiteboard of categories and color-coded anecdotes soon began to look like the chart of a complex police investigation. But I noticed the topic of “making connections” was quite strong. After reviewing the stories, one table started a lively discussion about how technology was changing the nature of these “connections”, and shaping the way we share knowledge. “Sure, we have a lot more tools to find and connect with the right people and the right information, but in the end we still rely on a more human touch,” countered one participant, who then pointed out the fact that we were all sitting together in a room, working out these issues without laptops or cell phones! Indeed, the atmosphere was perfect for accomplishing real results, and we were already hot on the trail.
We broke into groups, and began discussing the link between social entrepreneurship and systemic change – and the topic seemed to veer towards the “in-between” players; the politicians, the corporations, and the government policies creating obstacles to change instead of incentives to stimulate social innovation. One participant noted the difference between “intentional” obstacles (to maintain stakeholder interests) and “unintentional” obstacles (the natural consequence of living together in large, complex cities). But regardless of which, there did seem to be consensus that stronger and bolder leadership was needed. “We also must not be afraid to fail, because that stops people from trying experiments,” said one guest.
This theme of “experiments” carried on to the final discussion around cities – and the challenges they face supporting social entrepreneurs. I noticed how difficult it was for the group to pinpoint the precise role a city *should* have in enabling this kind of innovation, but most agreed that if we wanted to try experiments, we would need more policies reduce the “friction” placed on business. “The city does want to strengthen the social entrepreneur ecosystem,” said one civil servant. Another responded, “But cities need to see the specific benefits of changing any policy”. “We could do a better job measuring and illustrating our impact, but we first need a more clear directive exactly what the city is trying to accomplish,” countered a social entrepreneur.
Many practical ideas were shared, and the strength of the diversity of this lab really seemed to shine when it came to these more practical issues of policy changes. Most agreed that taxes and regulations could be made easier on initiatives with a community benefit. And many liked the idea of a central “help desk” for social entrepreneurs.
The lab provided all of us with a deeper understanding of the challenges that face social entrepreneurs, but it also seemed to mark an exciting beginning to making real, measurable progress. I was informed that the resulting insights and strategies gathered will inform the Gemeente’s newly emerging Amsterdam Action Program on Social Entrepreneurship and will also be presented directly to the European Commission via the FP7 EFESEIIS Research Project.
I was grateful for the opportunity to take part in the workshop, and appreciate all the participants for generously donating their time and energy. And I think as more cities and more companies across the EU realize the tremendous benefits of this growing “social movem ent”, we will see more “enablers” from diverse backgrounds come together and take the lead in creating a more collaborative environment to support and stimulate this movement.
Building a better society is like building a table – we don’t necessarily need to saw harder; we merely need to make sure the saws are sharp, and provide a little guidance and direction. Thanks to a continued effort from resources like Impact Hub and this field of enabling agents of change working together, we can continue to empower social entrepreneurs to enact profound impact in the world.