Residential report 1: Dartonia, Social Enterprise City of the Future

So it's that time of year again where SSE has its residential; we are down in Dartington in Devon, which has a close connection to SSE as Michael Young (our founder) was integrally involved in Dartington, and because it is now the organisational home for the Devon SSE franchise.

Nearly 150 social entrepreneurs are here from around the UK: Fife, Liverpool, Wigan, Devon, Cornwall, London, Yorkshire…..with also visitors from SSE Suffolk and Australia staff and supporters….all descending on a tranquil part of the world for a three-day intensive learning experience, but also (hopefully) one full of useful networking, inspiration and enjoyment.

This year, the stakes have been upped. Participants were given a 'passport' as they entered, welcoming them to the Social Enterprise City of the Future: Dartonia. Apparently, the fictional Dartonia is a struggling and deprived area in need of help from teams of social entrepreneurs to address its various problems. And the government (a la Big Society) has thrown down the gauntlet. So there are four teams (red, blue, green, yellow) and five sector groups within those (arts, health, environment, crime, education), tasked with coming up with financially viable projects and strategies which are clear in their purpose (and communication) and clear on how the social benefit and impact will be measured and achieved.

Each team gets a budget (Dartonia Dollars) to spend on advice (evaluation, marketing, finance etc) or to speak to focus groups, or hear from experts on particular areas. And there's much more besides: press releases, financial forecasts, and a live Question Time (chaired by yours truly, Nick Dimbleby) featuring a representative from each team.

Thus far, it's going well; some accommodation disasters aside (far from ideal, but now thankfully sorted: the curse of events etc), everyone is cracking on with the challenge and very much entering into the spirit of things. It's a game, a challenge, but also one with a purpose: particularly a chance to experience (against very urgent and pressing deadlines) the difficulties of building / leading teams, and of partnership and collaboration.

And of course, there's also been much networking over drinks and dinner and, for a diverting couple of hours, karaoke. Highlights of the latter included a fearsome, full-bodied version of "She's a Maniac" from Flashdance, and an emotive "Another Day in Paradise". Combine the two and you get some sense of the event so far :0)

More photos, video and audio to follow over the next few days.

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A small and clear presentation about the Big Society

There's been much written and said about the Big Society but it's been sometimes difficult to get clarity on what it means, what's happening, and what the opportunities are. In some areas, that's still unclear (and will be until post October 20th, when government announces its spending plans in the Comprehensive Spending Review), but this presentation by Karl Wilding over at NCVO is as clear as it gets. Enjoy.



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Is a Social App Store just Toolkits 2.0?

AppstoreI was inspired to write by the latest issue of Third Sector magazine this week. Not a sentence I've written too often, perhaps, (tend to rely on it for news, rather than inspiration…) but there were three thought-provoking pieces in the current issue.

The first was what is probably the best interview I've read with Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, on the Conservative approach to the sector. There are some good challenges  here for naysayers and cut-watchers alike, and a good summary 'progress report'.

The second was by John Kingston of Venturesome asking "How can we increase supply of capital to the third sector?' I'll cover that in a forthcoming post on Big Society Bank / social investment

And the third was a great challenge from Craig Dearden-Phillips to move away from just complaining politely about cuts (and doing so ever more loudly) and to think radically about how to react, survive, thrive and reconfigure in the current context. To be constructive about the Big Society agenda.


To that end, I've been reading up on one initiative bubbling away in the affiliations of the Big Society Network: the concept of a Social App Store. David Wilcox, arch social reporter, suggested this as an idea and it has begun to be shaped and formed online by the contributions of others. His outline of it is here, and you can read the subsequent discussions here. The concept is summarised as follows:

It will aim to offer online users simple navigation to easy-to-use
content and tools for social action – some free, some paid-for. It will
offer developers of how-to materials for social action the opportunity
to showcase their existing work, and work with others to develop new
offerings. By creating a substantial market place it will provide
developers with an incentive to develop or re-purpose materials in
formats easy to use by those new to social action.

In principle, I like a lot about this: making ideas accessible, thinking radically about how we can scale up their take-up, a commitment to openness, the potential largeness of reach, democratising design / co-production, utilising new tech to connect, providing a real product (or even 'shopfront') to what big society is and means, financial transaction / trading element and so on. Much to build on and work with here.

My constructive questions or concerns are: is the language alienating (does it smack of metropolitan smart-phone-owning tech-savvy people etc)? Others, including David, have noted this already though, and suggested alternatives. More substantively, it is the communicated sense that this type of social action can be 'downloaded and installed' (to borrow the terminology) so simply. Implementation of such work is not one-click and instant, but, often, achieved with hard slog and determination over the long haul. And it is often challenging and difficult and messy. Where I can get up and running with an app or MySociety website cleanly and instantly, other social projects and tools need support, capacity, confidence and persistence to put into action.

The associated risk, therefore, is that this is just toolkits 2.0: everyone in this sector knows there is a toolkit or a resource for everything from community planning to social impact measurement, and also that creating the content after the project (because you wrote it in the bid) is often the easy bit. An online store of these won't change that. (see Richard's recent post on SE Toolbelt for a similar take). Materials, by definition, are only the substances out of which things are made.

So my suggestion is to think and proffer questions about what offline support might look like: who the store workers or shop assistants might be, and where they might be located. Are they voluntary, app-ointees, connected to existing local networks? Are they located in actual stores (as David Barrie suggests in his response in the group discussion)? Where are the learning loops or support networks for those 'downloading' from the store, and what might those look like? Or is there a phone hotline to talk through problems? (the equivalent of e-mailing the app developer?) Will there be any quality control or measurement of success (app-raisals?), or is it genuinely radical in its devolving of trust and, possibly, resource?

Much to ponder, but also much to build.

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Social enterprise + entrepreneurship links from July

AlarmclocktimeCurrently, on my return to work, I am somewhere between B and C in the image to the left. Cleared the inbox (almost) yesterday, and now catching up on everything that's happened since I've been away.

To which the short answer is "far too much to put in one post". So I'm taking the easy / sensible way out, and posting up a load of the most interesting and relevant links during the last month that have passed through the inbox / twitter / etc Hopefully they are for you too.

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Is trust the most radical and efficient thing we have?

TursttraumaA little while back, I wrote a post about whether a trust-based society could help square the public service delivery circle: the idea being that, in a time of fewer resources but greater need, removing middling tiers of bureaucratic infrastructure from top-down projects could help more resources reach the grassroots and allow more delivery and impact to take place. That a 'contract-based' society that emphasises monitoring rather than measurement, accountability rather than transparency, is actually a hindrance to genuine devolution. (On that subject, there's an interesting piece worth reading on whether we there is now a risk of a new 'transparency bureaucracy' being created….).

There is an updated version of the paper SSE's chair Charlotte Young has written on this subject, downloadable as a pdf, which asks (and begins to answer): How Can Social Entrepreneurs Help Build A Big Society (pdf)

I was reminded of this reading this article yesterday by Aditya Chakrabortty about A Revolution in Global Aid which describes how cash is starting to be simply, well, given to the poor. No large infrastructure projects with government-NGO-private sector partnerships, but a devolving of money straight to those who need it. On the one hand, cash transfers like this sound ridiculously naive (as some of the comments below the article say), but it is actually about focusing on the best use of resources, about challenging the status quo, about being aware of the risks but being prepared to be radical. And about focusing on the outcomes, rather than on the intermediary processes and bureaucracy.

So, without wishing to sound like a hippy seeking to hug it out with all and sundry, I do wonder if trust could be a core part of the answer to the question that so many are asking in different ways: how can we deliver more for less? how can we achieve more efficiency but increase impact? how can we use the current circumstances to foster innovation at the grassroots? how do we create a big society?

And trust comes in different forms: not just trust from official bodies that money will be spent in a particular way, not just the trust that needs to return in those official institutions (political, financial), not just the trust to be (re)built in communities and between neighbours, not just the trust each social entrepreneur needs to build in their own work and those who support them, but also the trust in oneself to create and be part of change. As a wiser man than I put it (the playwright Chekhov), "You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible".

[hat tip as ever to the utterly brilliant Indexed blog for the image]

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