Imagining a new future: Social Entrepreneurship as an empowering narrative

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“The future is already here. It is just not evenly distributed” – William Gibson

There are growing calls for a new economic system that allows us to maximise human well being by meeting the basic needs of every human on earth, whilst staying within planetary boundaries. As the World Economic Forum (WEF) suggests in this short video on the fourth industrial revolution, exponential leaps in technology may enable us to do this.

The fourth industrialisation brings both incredible opportunities and challenges, requiring policy makers, entrepreneurs and development practitioners to carefully marry technological innovations with societal benefits, which companies in digital tech innovations like GetSmarter have exemplified in the area of education. On the other hand, the challenge the fourth industrialisation brings is the automation of work activities. This is an issue for a country like South Africa that, with a disastrous primary education system, is trying to create 11 million new jobs by 2030, according to the NPC’s NDP.

The leaps and bounds that technology is making is certainly mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, which makes it all the more critical, when confronted with the shiny optimism of tech-pundits that threatens to dominate social discourse, to remember the challenges that will accompany automation, and that innovation alone will not be our salvation. Without transitioning to a new system we run the risk that the benefits from advances in technology will reinforce inequality and environmental degradation, like for example Jason Hickel’s argument on clean energy.

There is a truth and urgency to Stewart Wallace’s proclamation in the WEF video that we need to create a new economic system that allows us to increase general human well being. Wallace goes on to say, “History tells us that a value shift is triggered by the creation of a new story about how we want to live”. A story, whether fictional or fact, is a powerful tool that can evoke emotion and empathy, shape opinion and can mobilise thousands of people. A story can either have an empowering or disempowering narrative, depending on how it is told and what it evokes in us. So the question is: how do we create a new empowering story that will help us trigger value shifts in society?

There are already many actors in our society that are creating empowering stories – social entrepreneurs. Getting Beyond Better, a book published by Roger Martin and Sally Osberg in 2015 on how social entrepreneurship works, defines social entrepreneurs as people dissatisfied with the status quo who take direct action to transform the existing system. Social entrepreneurs are distinctly different from both social service providers and social advocates in that the nature of their action is direct, and the outcome is not only a new equilibrium, but also one that is sustained.

Take, for example, Andrew Carnegie, who lived in late nineteenth century America, when books were only available to the richest in society. Martin and Osberg propose that Carnegie was, in fact, a social entrepreneur. He is well known for the creation of the modern public library that made books accessible to all, but his goal of giving everyone open access to free books was bold and big, and totally implausible at the time. In this way, Martin and Osberg argue, he aimed at and achieved transformative change. Carnegie could also very easily have taken the route of a social advocate and lobbied government to build libraries. Instead, he took direct action by working with cities and towns, and deployed his own money for the cause.

Social entrepreneurs create new stories about how they want to live by identifying a stable yet inherently unjust equilibrium and developing a transformative solution that forges a new equilibrium and unleashes new values for society.

One can draw many similarities here with the pattern of narrative called The Hero’s Journey, a storytelling technique identified by American scholar Joseph Campbell. It describes the typical adventure of the archetype known as The Hero, the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the group, tribe, or civilization. The Hero moves through different stages, called to adventure from the ordinary world, to conquer challenges and be tested, facing an ordeal of some kind, which is eventually rewarded with a “new life”, and ultimately The Hero returns with the elixir, or in the social entrepreneur’s case, the solution.

Social entrepreneurship, just like technology and innovation, is no silver bullet and will not catapult us into a new system, but it plays a vital role in creating new stories by redefining how we relate to one another. It creates empowering stories of new ways of doing, organising, knowing and framing. The story of social entrepreneurship is one of a new form of consumption, ownership, valuation, exchange and organisation. It challenges and renegotiates traditional boundaries between private and public, for-profit and not-for-profit, and formal and informal. It allows us to imagine a new future by building the society we want to live in.

Vanessa von der Heyde is the course convener for the upcoming executive programme on Sustainable Enterprise, hosted at the Sustainability Institute in partnership with USB-ED this August. Find out more about the programme and how to enrol in this course here.