I think that part of the reason for the confusion around the phrase Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship is that it is relatively new, in terms of its origins. Although there have always been people who have worked toward the benefits of society, the term Social Entrepreneur has just recently begun to accompany these people. In order to have a better understanding of what these words actually mean, I think that it is important to get the definition by the roots and determine what innovation and entrepreneurship really are.
Every entrepreneur needs to have the skill of problem recognition, they need to be able to look at a certain aspect of life and either recognize it as a negative or frame it as such, we’ll call these issues gaps. Now these gaps can exist in any facet of life; social, professional, spiritual or otherwise. What truly makes an entrepreneur standout is their ability to not only see these gaps, but to come up with a solution to bridge them. This is where innovation comes in. To me, to be innovative is to be able to come up with a solution that would not have come from the current method of trying to solve the problem. Innovation does not come from standing on the shoulders of giants and making steady progress toward a goal, but from paradigm shifts. Somebody will look at a subject and see it in an entirely new light and they will come up with a design plan that reflects that new light. That is innovation. And when a skilled entrepreneur also has great innovation, great things can happen. But just like the good of the scorpion is not the good of the frog, innovation and entrepreneurship won’t always benefit everyone.
From the little bit of economics I’ve taken during my two years at Duke, I’ve learned that there are two types of benefit in this world; private and social. Private benefit is where the person who is making the choices behind an operation is gaining a subsidy. This benefit is most often defined in monetary terms, but can also be put in the broader category of utility, which could be defined as a general increase in happiness. Social benefit is where people who don’t have any stake in an operation or action are benefitting. If I decided to build a park in Detroit, the social benefit could be the shade that the trees provide, or the aesthetic pleasure people gain from looking at the park, they did not have to pay for this park, but they are still gaining an increase in utility from it.
It is important to note that these two types of benefits are not mutually exclusive. Someone who is pursuing private benefits could also be doing a social good without intending to do so. Detroit is no stranger to these benefits and costs overlapping. One example of private and social benefits mixing is with the auto industry. The auto companies had a need for more workers in order to maximize the profits that there companies would make. To attract workers, a great deal of money was put into Detroit by the auto companies to make the city beautiful. When more workers came to the city, they would bring their families with them allowing for a great deal of growth for the city and a greater sense of community for the neighborhoods. These were pleasant side effects of businesses pursuing private gains. Unfortunately, pursuing one’s own benefit can also have a negative social side-effects.
In the early 20th century Detroit possessed a readily available trolley system. This method provided an affordable way for people to get around the city. However, as the auto industry became more and more powerful they decided it would be financially better for them if more Detroiters were driving automobiles. The trolley system began to get an incredible amount of pushback from the auto companies until it was eventually shut down. In pursuit of the best bottom line, many people lost their access to solid transportation, a problem that is still facing Detroit today. Despite the overlap that social and private benefits and costs have, I believe that there is a very distinct difference between an entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur.
For me, a social entrepreneur is somebody who will confront a problem and look at the social cost and benefit of a solution before anything else. They will continue to value social gains over private gains throughout the duration of their project. Social innovation is the same way, it may not be the most efficient action cost wise, but it is the best way to help the citizens of the community who wouldn’t be cared for otherwise.
I think that social innovation is important because it is crucial to helping people who are struggling and don’t offer a lot of opportunity for financial gain. Too often, the needs of a group of people will be concealed beneath a bottom line. In the pursuit of the highest earnings, many businesses will create a societal gap where people aren’t receiving the aid that they need or deserve. Social entrepreneurs work to bridge this gap in a way that is effective and sustainable.
One example of a social entrepreneurship in Detroit today is D-Town Farm. The farm was placed on two acres of land on Rouge Park in 2008. Since then it has not only been providing affordable, healthy food to those who need it, but also offering workshops on growing and sustaining your own garden and growing your own healthy foods. The program runs almost entirely through volunteer labor and a large portion of the proceeds go back into sustaining the farm. It is clear to see that D-Town farms clearly values the good of the people over the good of the profit, which is why it serves as a perfect example of a social entrepreneurship venture.
Detroit is a city of innovation and entrepreneurship. It rose with the interests of people like Henry Ford, people looking to create wealth, both for themselves and for their companies. This is certainly not a negative, I believe Detroit has many reasons to thank the manufacturers that came to the city to aid its growth. They were the ones who put Detroit on the map and helped it become a great city; a city everyone wanted to live in. Detroit continues to rise, however, it is now powered by a different engine. I think that Detroit is moving forward thanks to the members of the community who look out their window and see opportunity. Not necessarily for money, but for the good of the people and the good of the planet. Every great city needs social entrepreneurs and when I look around I know this is something the Detroit has in spades.