By Dr Mairi Mackay
Director Social and Creative Economies, British Council
I first met John Swinney, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister, in late September 2008 as the financial crisis was beginning to wreak havoc across the globe. He was in Hong Kong, Asia’s capitalist heart, to address the first GlobalScot conference in the region before leading a delegation of Scottish fund managers to the China International Finance Forum in Shanghai. I was a couple of years into my role leading Scotland’s trade and investment agenda in Greater China and vividly remember the shock caused by the magnitude of the extraordinary events unfolding across the global financial markets. The news that had broken during his 13-hour flight alone was telling an ever stronger and more sobering tale about the instability of profit driven capitalism
It was earlier that month in Edinburgh that John Swinney had opened the first Social Enterprise World Forum. Social enterprise was not new, but it was niche: a promising, bold and commendable alternative to business-as-usual that offered creative solutions to social problems and championed the potential of a more inclusive economic model. Around the same time, in early 2009, the seeds of the British Council’s Global Social Enterprise programme were being sown in China and across East Asia. By the time I joined the organisation in Beijing in 2011, several thousand social entrepreneurs had received training and we were holding enthusiastic policy and partnership discussions with governments and corporates in the region that recognised the potential of social enterprise.
The economic crash and the austerity that followed caused a tectonic shift in our economic and political systems and cultures. And yet none of us would have predicted many of the worldwide events of the past ten years or the scale and complex tapestry of interconnected challenges we would be facing in 2018. Nor would we have appreciated the strength of the response that social enterprise would offer to these challenges.
In the ten years that have elapsed we have seen through our work across 30 countries and the ever-growing influence of the SEWF that social enterprises offer sustainable business solutions to address issues across the spectrum of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). No longer niche but a necessary heart of alternative models of doing business, social enterprise is now recognised globally as a fast-growing, inclusive business model, operating at scale, altering supply chains and influencing economic ecosystems around the world.
We have witnessed a shifting narrative from aid-led solutions to enterprise-led solutions to developmental problems. Social enterprise is unleashing the entrepreneurial spirit of women, offering post conflict solutions, addressing youth unemployment and providing the narrative and tools to inspire a new generation and include previously excluded individuals and communities in the design and development of a better world.
Back in Hong Kong, a 50 million GBP fund was recently established to solve social problems because although “the Hong Kong government is rich, money can’t solve every social problem.” That recognition that systemic change is necessary is being echoed around the world, encouraging us to both reflect on the movement’s remarkable progress over the past decade and challenge ourselves to create greater platforms to influence and be continuously relevant to the demands of significant system change.
We can acknowledge that we don’t need to agree on everything – models, metrics and meanings will vary. What we can agree on, however, is that social enterprise is now central and catalytic to a much more profound reshaping of our idea of economics. It is an ‘Economics of Empowerment’ that liberates us from the limits of capitalism, fosters self-organising ecosystems, provides opportunities for local communities and enables the most excluded to drive change, generating jobs, better lives and inclusive economic growth.
Back in my home in Scotland this alternative vision for an inclusive economy with an integrated approach to economic and international development has become well established and is a beacon for the world. One of the most compelling achievements of the British Council’s social enterprise work has been our partnership with the Social Enterprise Academy and Real Ideas Organisation to take their pioneering, deep-rooted work to embed social enterprise education in schools in Scotland and England around the world. In countries as diverse as Greece, Mexico and Pakistan, we are providing social enterprise education to young people – expected to reach 50,000 by 2020, to develop not only the social entrepreneurs of the future but a generation of conscious consumers, employers and citizens who are guardians of a more inclusive and creative global economy.
As we celebrate the achievements of the past ten years in Edinburgh and recall the maelstrom in which the SEWF was born, this is a vision to help us look beyond the immediate challenges of the present and elevate our ambition for the next ten.
The British Council is a strategic partner and sponsor of SEWF 2018
Mairi Mackay will be chairing the full plenary session on ‘The Collaborative Economy and the Future of Business’ at 9am on Friday 14th September