I re-discovered authentic writing. So no, I’m not going to tell you a shiny social entrepreneur story here. Things are not looking particularly shiny. This is a “precarious social entrepreneur” story …
Well, at least I had a great time at Social Innovation Academy 2013 in Amsterdam. Because of somehow reaching semifinals in the European Social Innovation Competition 2013. (See below for some pictures.)
Now here’s what it is like to be a precarious social innovator. Working on your innovation needs investment and creativity, and both require a surplus of resources. While precarity is all about lacking that surplus: your “success” is little more than bare survival even when you try really hard. Precarity is also about uncertainty, while working on an innovation needs a constant supply of work to arrive anywhere. So I discovered that being a precarious social entrepreneur simply does not work out: it’s a long story of achieving nothing great. For me personally this means currently that I’d have to work on (1) a crowd investment campaign, (2) applications for other funds and support, incl. the above competition, (3) our core network barter algorithm and more, but instead could do barely more during the last months than keeping myself financially afloat, inspite of minimal running costs.
So, there’s really a place for funding citizen-driven innovation, as done through the European Social Innovation Competition. However, it’s done with far too low volume. 60k EUR in prize money for 605 entries? C’m on, srsly? And yes, I know there are more funds from other sources, but these are generally inaccessible to citizen entrepreneurs or anybody else not affiliated with an organization of the establishment. Let’s take it this way: if you only fund the establishment to do social innovation, you don’t let any new players enter this field, and inherently reproduce the division of society into “established” and “precarious” groups among social innovators themselves. One of the very things that social innovation wants to overcome.
And yes, I understand the argument that most of our social innovation ideas are not good enough yet to be funded. This is even true. However: the innovators themselves are there already, and that’s the main ingredient. They bring passion, creativity and the willingness to learn. And many citizen social entrepreneurs also identified a problem correctly, as they innovate to solve something that causes their own precarity or exclusion. So, investing some consulting here to help us refine and polish our ideas is something with really promising ROI opportunities (in social terms, of course). Put the other way round, many social innovations from citizens will not become solutions to their problems simply because nobody tells their innovators how to do that …
Social Innovation Academy in Amsterdam was a good first take on this, and I commend that the organizers realized how important it is to provide consulting expertise to citizen innovators. However, I also want to propose some changes, because this type of social innovator support was still clinging to establishment’s ways of doing stuff. And for that reason, it was inefficient. Only 30 out of 605 teams could receive some social innovation counselling, while the rest (as far as I know) got no feedback for their idea. And for the 30 of us, it was for a good part a “school type” experience, though the organizers from NESTA, Kennisland and European Commission tried hard to be personally accessible. Yet still, the program during these two days was either listening to presentations (interesting without a doubt, but there’s similar stuff on YouTube) or working with our peers (who lack the same crucial expertise). So what I enjoyed most was a small group session, each group with one of the instructors, where we could get deeper-going feedback on our ideas and their presentation. We need more of this!
So how about this alternative way to organize social innovation consulting: European Commission opening up a web space that offers a permanent consultation space for social innovation. Or if tied to a competition, for everybody who entered the competition, and as long as it runs. The same thing that frag-einen-anwalt.de is in Germany for (paid) legal advice, but here (cost-free) for social innovation and social entrepreneurship. Submit your idea, get detailed feedback. As easy as that. All ideas and answers would be public, and open content, in return for being cost-free. Even better, this Q&A space could be integrated where the buzz is, where grassroots social innovators already gather. (We could easily make room here on edgeryders.eu for that ) What I look for is not feedback for a ninety-second pitch or talking to a subject-matter expert in a five-minute coffee break, but for the very same expert to have 2-4 hours for my idea, to understand it, research a bit, then giving the feedback and allowing me to discuss potential improvements.
What the Social Innovation Academy taught me was the value of expertise: there’s a lot to learn from funders, innovation policy professionals and serial social entrepreneurs, a lot that you simply can’t learn from us peers who are still stumbling in the dark (or alternatively, are just not in the meritocratic position to talk somebody off a bad idea). Economy App itself was born when we got a one-page expert feedback from an (unsuccessful) submission of another idea to a German business idea competition. They basically told us, the compensation scheme in our proposed small business support network was too risky and legally too complex for contributors. In the following half an hour, we developed the way more ingenious network barter algorithm that is at the core of Economy App. But we could not have given that feedback to ourselves, we needed an expert.
These experts seem to hide in all kinds of think tanks and other established structures. It’s a question of accessibility that, when addressed, empowers the social innovator citizen more than a cash prize.