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Scaling up social innovations

The Transition movement isn't the first idea/movement to grow rapidly and then wonder how to take the next step forward.  Within the field of social enterprise, the question of scaling up is faced by many diverse enterprises and innovations.  How to take the next step up?  I talked to Nick Temple, director of business and enterprise at Social Enterprise UK (the national membership body for social enterprise in the UK) for his thoughts, via Skype as he sat in a London coffeeshop. One of his key suggestions?  Get on TV.  

  

What for you is a social innovation? What does that mean?

A social innovation I guess, for me that’s broader than a social enterprise. A social innovation would be really an idea that’s being implemented that’s totally new. I think people tend to confuse innovation with novelty at times, so it’s not a new idea but one that’s implemented.

I think the difference with social innovation as opposed to social enterprise is that that can be really across any sectors. It could be happening in the public sector, private sector, social sector or often in a partnership across different sectors.

What are the most common challenges with scaling these things up, in your experience?

I would say we tend to see quite a lot of ambition early on, so we tend to see quite a few unrealistic business plans which maybe underestimate the extent to which scale requires an investment in systems, an investment in people and infrastructure. An investment in some of the central functions that takes time, resources and capacity. Often that can be one of the main challenges.

I think as a sector we tend to be incredibly impatient for scale, understandably because the scale of problems we’re facing are still huge and significant and often growing. But often if you look at those social enterprises and other social innovations that have scaled, the thing that tends to connect them, if anything, is the amount of time they’ve taken and not necessarily anything else.

Where do you sit in terms of the danger at the moment, where there are massive cuts in public spending and government appears to be expecting the social enterprise world to step in and fill those gaps. In terms of the politics of that, do you think government is embracing social enterprise because it’s committed to the ideas of social enterprise or because it sees it as something that can pick up the leftovers that the private sector doesn’t want?

I’m not quite as cynical. Social enterprise has had cross-party support for quite a while now, from 2008 onwards. That’s for a couple of reasons: if you’re from the left, some in the Labour party tends to see social enterprise as the embodiment of the Third Way, of social justice combined with economic development. From a Conservative perspective, the fact that it’s enterprise and focuses on enterprise and individuals is something that appeals to Conservative sensibilities perhaps more than a traditional volunteering kind of approach. 

Nick (with Sarah Aktemel) showing his support for the Atmos Totnes project.

I think we’re always quite clear that social enterprise isn’t a panacea. The reality is a lot of decent sized social enterprises get a lot of money from the public sector through contracts they win, so cuts to public funding affect social enterprises just like they affect private sector organisations who work in the public sector and the public sector itself.

I suppose the more positive side of it is that we are having to come up with completely new solutions to some of this stuff. If you’re running a local authority right now and the cost of adult care and children’s care is going through the roof at the same time as your income is going down, the ‘graph of doom’ as it’s known in local authority circles, then the pithy way of putting it is you can only slice the salami so much and then you don’t have a salami any more.

At some point you actually have to find different ways of doing things that are more preventative, that can save you money in multiple budget lines, help you deliver multiple outcomes and help you make much better use of your resources. I think that’s where social enterprise does have a role to play in providing some of those answers.

So something like Transition which has been around for 7 years and has scaled from nothing to being in 44 countries and is fostering that idea of social enterprise.  When you have something like that, which has gone to a certain scale but needs to take that next push on into the mainstream, that move from the early adopters to the early majority, what’s your sense or your experience of some suggestions about how to do that? What would your advice be in that context?

There’s no single answer obviously specific to Transition. But what I’ve grown to understand a bit more is the power of the media. This might sound a bit superficial but it’s extraordinary to me the power of the traditional media and social media, television in actually increasing awareness of what’s going on.

It’s interesting, if we looked at something like Teach First, which is very different to Transition, it has huge political support which helped it get off the ground very quickly, cross-party buy in, private sector support, and just recently they’re now having a TV programme made following Teach First teachers. That will permeate it even further into the mainstream. What we’re very aware of in terms of trying to raise people’s awareness of social enterprise, which is our job, because actually the primary source of income for social enterprises is the general public, ahead of the public sector. Actually when we’re looking to raise awareness we don’t really bother with our sector press, we only focus on the mainstream media.

Social Enterprise UK

In terms of breaking through, recognition, awareness and understanding, it’s having a co-operatively run shop on The Archers or having a social entrepreneur on The Apprentice or the likes of a Jamie Oliver’s 15 etc. etc. that actually help you reach a huge audience and that trickles down to a smaller number who will pick that up and get involved. And it plays into influencing other groups, whether that’s local authority, local enterprise partnerships, whoever that might be in terms of needing to get the actual stuff done. I didn’t expect myself to be sitting here saying it’s about TV, but the power of the media in terms of building that awareness across a whole range of different audiences is really critical.

With something like Transition, a lot of the people who would be involved with it would be people, as with a number of social innovations, who are drawn to it because they are attracted by the social change aspect of it and the social aspect, they don’t necessarily come from a background in commerce or business or enterprise in that kind of sense. What can something like Transition or other social innovations learn from how business approaches are scaling up, do you think?

I would start by saying, what you’ve said in terms of Transition and who’s attracted to it is common across social enterprise as well. Historically we tend to have people who may have come from the more traditional voluntary sector or from a public sector background, who may not have some of those skills. The bit I’m really interested in at the moment is the system stuff, which is the very unsexy, undocumented types of things that people don’t want to talk about, so your CRM database, your IT system, the operational people you have, their project management skills and so on and so forth.

It tends to be those things that you find in a lot of the really impressive business organisations, their ability to do marketing exceptionally well. I think we tend to be a bit shy at times in the social enterprise sector generally – I think it’s relatively weak at marketing. It’s viewed as if we’re spending money on marketing and sales, we’re taking money away from work we could be doing on the ground. Obviously if marketing and sales is successful then it brings you more business and more money that you can use to do more of the good work that you want to do.

For me, that being unashamedly commercial often is not necessarily about being ruthless or red in tooth and claw. It can be about investing in those things that you might not otherwise, and that’s often sales and marketing and communications.

There is the well known model of social innovation (the 'Innovation Adoption Curve') that moves from early adopters to early majority and so on (see below).  Often social enterprises and social innovations are very good at appealing to those early adopters, the people who are always scanning the horizon for new exciting ideas and pounce on them and run with them, then taking that step across into the early majority requires a tweaking of message maybe or how it’s presented, are there any examples that come into your mind of things that have successfully stepped across what some call "the gap", and if so how did they do that?

Adoption Curve

What we tend to see is some real focusing of message, often to reach that bigger audience you need to really hone down on the essence of what it is and what it’s about so there’s less room for nuance. If I took something like a bottled water company like Belu (which the Transition Network would probably not be too happy about) which was a great idea and had a lot of early support from the social sector, but actually didn’t really break through.

It was only when it really clarified and simplified its business model and its marketing honed that, which is basically very simply: "we’re a bottled water company, all our profits go to Water Aid, one day every bottled water company should be like us, we bring you mineral water with ethics". It distilled (no pun intended) their message into something really understandable by the mainstream. I think that’s why, rather than just seeing them at social enterprise conferences, you now see them in Strada, in Sainsbury’s and a whole range of other outlets. They simplified it into something that people can understand very intuitively and very quickly.

I think often it can be about just really honing those messages and getting to the kernel of what this is about so that you can make that really understandable and really accessible to that broader group of people.

Any last thoughts or advice for the Transition movement around scaling up?

The Transition movement’s been very successful in reaching that scale. I like the approach which is a move from ideas through to quite detailed plans and then into action. Now it tends to be about the more you can raise up those examples of action and have that modelling of behaviour and build a healthy competition between peers about who’s doing best. In terms of developing that enterprising culture, I think it’s best to reiterate the mantra of what it’s about, those simple messages about what Transition is all about and its purpose, keeping people aligned to that and understanding that this activity is all building towards that, and continuing to name those really great examples that there are across the world to inspire and encourage and incentivise others to do similar. 

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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