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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Catch the Idea Train - Re-Sourcing R&D to Social Entrepreneurs

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to listen to and speak with some of the brightest, most successful people in the province.  These fortunate encounters came at three events in particular: The ORION Network’s THINK2012; The Graham Boeckh Foundation Next Frontier in Mental Health Symposium and the Canadian Club of Toronto’s presentation to Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of Canada, with the Canadian of the Year award.

While these folk came from backgrounds as diverse as finance, academia, policy and mental health care, each brought a lot of the same themes forward, independently: the need, for example, for disparate silo-based industries (particularly in the public sector) to really integrate into a proper, efficient, coordinated system; the need for some new, connective tools to bring partners together to find new solutions and reduce the duplication, gaps and overlaps built into our existing pseudo-systems; the need to do government, finance, industry differently.  The biggest challenge of all – how to build in transparency and accountability where some top-dogs might not want it, ensuring that our institutions work for the public good, not just the CEO’s or shareholders’ wallets.

Last night, I sat in a room of primarily young, enthusiastic social entrepreneurs at The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) Annex location for a presentation by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of Britain’s National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts.  He and I agreed that the social changes we’re undergoing right now (and he was touching the same conceptual elephant as the blue chip crowds I’d heard elsewhere) are similar to those faced during the Industrial Revolution.  The world has changed, opportunity has changed, work design needs to change – but the champions of the 20th Century model of business-as-usual aren’t in the right head space, so to speak, to harness our 21st Century potential nor solve our 21st Century challenges.

The social entrepreneurs in that Annex basement, full of ideas on how to reduce waste and turn it into power, how to redesign public health to be more accessible to target groups, how to sell oneself in an age of social media, etc. – they’re the ones who will generate these opportunities and solutions.  They’re doing it already.  They just need others to believe in them, give them a chance, give them some support.

These two groups (the holders of capital/the means of production and the social entrepreneurs) are tiptoeing around each other like heartbreaking new friends, needing each other but not sure how to reach out in meaningful ways, how to balance the risk and trust concerns that come along with fastening new relationships.

But they do need each other – and society needs for them to work together.

Here’s how to bridge the gap.  Big industry and government musn’t look at social entrepreneurs as would-be capitalist successes, although some of them could be.  Instead, the people with resources should support the people with ideas as an outsourced Research and Development capability.  In other words, supporting these social entrepreneurs isn’t a maybe-investment in tomorrow’s opportunities or a form of charity, but a direct cost of doing business and staying competitive.

The ways in which government, the private and Not-For-Profit sectors and now, the Social Entrepreneur movement communicate are changing; there are those of us creating the right linkages, developing conduits for these conversations to happen.  It’s going to be an exciting new world.

The Knowledge Economy train is leaving the station fueled not by coal, but by ideas.  And it’s not too late to get on board.

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