Could social entrepreneurs do better than capitalists?

Esmee Wilcox has published her second blog post in our Emerging Fellows program. She believes social entrepreneurs are succeeding where they understand how to make use of the creative capital. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

It’s easy to think of social entrepreneurs as providing the antidote to modern capitalism. Seen from this perspective, social entrepreneurs are likely to remain at the margins of unreformed capitalism in the latter half of this century. The production of social value out of balance with the primacy of the economy. But hidden within the creative means of producing social goods lie the opportunities to tackle complex global challenges. So where are there hints of these new social norms that could displace how we value economic capital? How might this help us transition towards a world rich in creative capital?

Looking back, there are examples of nineteenth and twentieth-century capitalism that shifted the organising model towards greater social benefits. The Co-operative movement is well known. Public enterprise perhaps less so, but particularly influential in the USA in shifting popular perceptions of what was important for society at large. From the distribution of ice for food safety in rapidly growing municipalities in the early twentieth-century, to the building of ships to keep supply lines open during the second world war. They required a level of social co-operation to displace private gain.

They were distinct from charitable activity that is dependent on philanthropy and separate from the means of economic production. Not only did these co-operative enterprises challenge the imbalance of economic and social value. What they also did through a co-operative model was to demonstrate a more creative means of enterprise.

The social values that were necessary to engage workers in producing social benefits, were what enabled the production of economically valuable goods to be more efficient and innovative. It’s the same empathy, generosity and inclusivity that enables us to work across disciplines and organisational siloes in our modern creative enterprises. We need these organising principles to be widespread to tackle the complex, interconnected issues of our times. We live with hyper-connectivity in our age of the internet. The social, political and environmental challenges we face exist within complex systems.

Co-operative enterprises are more akin to self-organising systems, which we know are capable of co-evolving with changes in the external, operating environment. This self-organising model challenges the existing economic order that links power and status with capital and hierarchies. We no longer need ‘rent-seeking’ managers that disconnect those thinking about the problem from those experiencing the problem. People are able to think and solve problems in dynamic systems themselves. Human capability and ingenuity is released in unexpected places.

Communities that are poor in capital and consumptive power threaten those that steadfastly hold onto it. Government institutions need to stop seeing socially inclusive enterprises as replacements for welfare programmes. Government Innovation Prizes could hint at a shift in practice, making it easier for new social enterprises to find a way in to organising around a myriad of complex societal issues. But it’s Social Innovation Incubators that are countering the institutional bias against people from poor places, who have been held back from accessing their own creative capital. Acknowledging and bridging the gap between those that know the rules of the game and those that want to create new ones.

Vested interests will give up economic power where the alternative is more compelling in the present. However much we may foresee the redundancy of capitalism as it stands, social enterprise will only displace it where it can also be resonant now.

Social entrepreneurs are succeeding where they understand how to make use of the creative capital that is more evenly distributed amongst us. The economic capital we have now won’t be meaningful in the age of scarcity at the end of the twenty-first century. What will matter is how we self-organise around the complex challenges of our times. Empathetic, inclusive, and generous social entrepreneurs can show us how to make this transition.

© Esmee Wilcox 2019