Smarter Cities need Smarter Social Enterprises

The SES “Container City” incubation facility for social enterprise in Sunderland

I’ve just been at a great workshop with a variety of social enterprises in Sunderland, hosted by Sustainable Enterprise Strategies (SES). The objective of the workshop was to identify ways in which social enterprises might harness new technologies to help them respond to – and exploit – the dramatic changes coming to social care and health in coming years – such as personal care budgets, Big Society, Open Public Services and GP commissioning of health services.

Mark Heskett Saddington, Director of SES, started off the day with some striking statistics about Social Enterprises – which include co-operatives, employee-owned companies, mutuals, charities and other such organisations. Mark’s team alone support 100s of traditional and social businesses in Sunderland, employing 1000s of staff, mostly from deprived, high-unemployment areas. Their combined annual turnover is in the tens of millions of pounds sterling.

Across the world, the figures are even more striking. 4 in 10 residents of the USA– the world’s flagship private enterprise economy – are members of a co-operative, including 87 million people who belong to a credit union. 13% of Sweden’s GDP and 21% of Finland’s GDP are created by social enterprises. Worldwide, social enterprises employ over 100 million people with a turnover of £1.1 trillion. That’s big business.

People in the social enterprise community are – not surprisingly – passionate in focussing on the needs of their customers, or “service users”, to whom they are often providing some form of care or support. But they’re also passionate about their business model (though not all of them would call it that).

For example, Margaret Elliot told us how she first started a co-operative in Sunderland in the 1970s, a home care provider called “Little Women”. At the time, it was born of necessity: her and some friends, all mothers, needed to work; but needed to look after pre-school children too. So they started a co-operative and ran a nursery in their office premises. More than 30 years later – and now leading an organisation that is franchising itself across the UK and that employs many hundreds of people – she described social enterprise as “a bug” that people catch. She spoke of the power of giving people ownership of the organisation that they work for; and described how it focuses organisational decision making on delivering value to the end users of services.

The changes coming to local public services, social care and health are going to create a new, transactional market in which social enterprises will need to participate, and in which they’ll need to behave in some ways more like private enterprises do today. For instance, many organisations, such as social landlords, that are currently funded by regular grants, will in future have to compete for individual service delivery transactions paid for by individual end users. That’s a dramatic change; and one that will require new processes and new infrastructures that those organisations don’t have access to today.

In a world that is “digital by default”, it’s tempting to think that existing marketplaces – such as Amazon and e-Bay – provide a model that can be emulated. But the language and models of those marketplaces tend to emphasise products and cost, not what social enterprises value – the quality of outcome for the end user of a service.

For example, if you search for branded batteries in the Amazon Marketplace, you’ll find some very, very cheap batteries which have what appear to be high review ratings. If you look a bit closer, though, there are a lot of 5 star reviews that simply state “the batteries were really cheap and arrived quickly”. There are a smaller number of 1 star reviews that warn “I only used them for a week, and then they ran out. They’re obviously fakes!”.

In social care, that sort of information simply can’t be hidden at the end of such a long trail. For all its merits and success, Amazon is clearly not a market that balances economic and social outcomes in the way that Social Enterprises will need. Of course, it was never designed to be, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Whilst existing online marketplaces provide rich experience we can learn from, they don’t yet provide the answer.

What I’m sure will happen is that social enterprises will co-create their own markets that strike a better balance. Early examples such as “Shop 4 Support” already exist, though the social enterprises I spoke to yesterday told me that the transaction prices in that market are currently often too high for small social enterprise service providers to bear. There will be considerable challenges along the way – dealing, for instance, with managing online identities and personal data in a way that’s appropriate for sensitive services, perhaps exploiting the initiatives announced recently by the Cabinet Office and Technology Strategy Board on personal data stores and identity.

It’s going to be a period of great change; and of great innovation in the use of technology. And, I hope, of exciting new opportunities to deliver improved outcomes for Social Enterprise.

For me, this is very much part of Smarter Cities. It may not involve instrumenting physical systems such as transportation and water; and it may not in the first place require the application of big data technologies (though I think the need for them will come); but it does represent a striking change in the way city systems will work. In particular, it’s about dramatic changes in the interactions that involve some of the people who need the most help.

But if cities can repeat Mark’s success with SES in incubating successful social enterprises creating new jobs in areas of high unemployment, it’s also an opportunity for economic growth. And whilst the focus of most of this post has been on social care, that’s far from the only sector in which social enterprises are active. Lydia’s House, for example, are a co-operative in Sunderlandwho train local employees from vulnerable backgrounds to produce artistic home furnishings with potential for export from the local economy.

In a previous post, I blogged that growing city economies whilst consuming less resources was the number one concern of city leaders today. If helping people to help themselves in local communities isn’t a resource-efficient way to create value, I don’t know what is. That sounds like the sort of Smarter City we’re looking for.

About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Smart Places for Jacobs, the global engineering company. Previously, I was the UK, Middle East and Africa leader of the Digital Cities and Property business for Arup, Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK’s largest engineering and infrastructure services companies and part of the international Ferrovial Group, and before that IBM UK’s Executive Architect for Smarter Cities.

16 Responses to Smarter Cities need Smarter Social Enterprises

  1. Andy says:



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