Our intern, Thor, who you will have read blogging here from time to time, has been looking into the history of this movement as part of his work / project while he’s with us. Which reminded me of this post that I wrote for another blog some time ago. Thought it might be of interest….:
It’s quite a common question to those of us who work in the world of social innovation and entrepreneurship: who was the first social entrepreneur? Or, when was the first social invention? The obvious answer, of course, is to say that such people (and ideas) have occurred throughout the ages. People like Robert Owen, Florence Nightingale, Gandhi, Michael Young (see here also) and the Rochdale Pioneers: social entrepreneurs and innovators one and all. But that only takes us a couple of centuries back: what about those social innovations that are so fundamental now that we don’t even think of them as such: the school, law courts, democracy. The latter is famously dated back to Athens (around 510 BC), but law courts and schools date back to 2400 and 2500 BC in Sumeria. The names of those forward-thinking Sumerians are sadly lost in the sands of time, but the campaign for their recognition starts here.
It does help put today’s work in perspective though. The term "social entrepreneur" may not have come into regular usage until the 1970s and 80s (its first use is believed to be in 1958, according to the mighty Wikipedia), but it’s fairly evident that entrepreneurial people wanting to use their skills and traits to make social change have existed for many centuries. Lecturing charities today on how they should start to trade and become self-sufficient seems less relevant when Oxfam started the first charity shop back in 1947 (and they were only copying the Salvation Army and Red Cross who ran second hand clothing shops before that). Similarly, pointing to the co-op movement (which was enshrined in law in the UK in the 1850s and 60s) as a new dawn ignores the mutualism prevalent in Europe at the time, and the craft guilds and friendly societies which existed since the 11th century.
Perhaps this helps make a wider point about (social) innovation and how we should think of it: not innovation in the sense of brand new Eureka ideas (innovation as novelty) but as a continuous process of refinement and incremental improvement, with the occasional bound forward. We are building on the ideas and actions of those who came before, responding to their innovations, and building upon them. But we are also responding to the problems and challenges that some of their innovations have created: advances in medicine mean a growing, ageing population; advances in transport have pollution as a by-product. This helps explain why those who have said (at various points in time), "everything has been invented", are utterly wrong: the need for innovation, particularly social innovation, will never go away.
As John Cage, the US composer puts it, "I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas; I’m frightened of the old ones".