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The future is social - at least in South East Europe

Author: Jordan Junge
Published Date: 26 April 2017

'The future is social!' The Prime Minister and his State Secretaries boldly declared in a quaint alpine resort centre just outside of Ljubljana on Monday, 24 April 2017.  

As more and more of the world increasingly turns inward and towards right-wing radicalisation, this was as refreshing as the surrounding alpine breeze.

He was not referring to the communist past, but instead towards the social economy. Prime Minister Cerar said 'social enterprises can be the right answer to the challenges we're facing today'. The conference 'Scaling Social Enterprise in South East Europe' was organised by the Government of Slovenia (the Prime Minister’s office and the Ministry of Economy and Development). The two-day event was intended to promote the social economy as a way forward to not only create more jobs and economic development, but also social inclusion and regional cohesion.

The conference brought together both policymakers from across the region and Europe alongside social enterprises and innovators to understand the current state of play and potential supporting policies; as well as the future challenges and opportunities facing social enterprises. The event ended with the Prime Minister's Office launching the 'Ljubljana Declaration', a mid-term plan to boost social enterprise development in the South East European region.

My role there was to moderate a panel for the European Investment Bank Institute entitled 'From social innovation to social impact'. I was joined on the panel by two social innovators, who had previously won the EIB Institute's Social Innovation Tournament, and three organisations that provide different types of support to the field - an impact investment platform (ClearlySo), an ICT platform that helps to refine the business models of social entrepreneurs (Compellio) and a networking hub/accelerator (Impact Zurich).

The following are my takeaways from my panel and the conference in general:                                                                 

1. The power of a politician

Although this is an on-going process that will undoubtedly take time, more policies and meetings, it was nonetheless refreshing and inspiring to have Prime Minister Cerar open the conference. From an outsider’s perspective, his government's commitment and willingness to engage in social innovation is commendable and enviable, and hopefully sends a message to others at a national level. As Teia Ciulacu from Recicleta in Romania reminded the conference, this is not yet a regional aspiration.

The loud calls from other speakers including Members of the European Parliament and neighbouring governments and parliaments only strengthened this and thus, the conference. 

2. Multiple terms

An audience question picked up on the multitude of terms that were thrown around throughout the day - social economy, social enterprise, social entrepreneur, social impact, social innovation, etc.... Each term has their specific place and will be favoured by some in certain locations. My preference and advice would be to speak about social innovation given its breadth and depth when speaking about the macro, so as not to potentially exclude those who are not classified as enterprise or entrepreneurship.

3. Translating policies into practice

On the morning of day 1, we heard about the European policies that exist to support social entrepreneurship. However, presentation after presentation diluted the potential impact of understanding what these policies mean in practice. We need to make these policies more accessible and in plain language. This is not just a challenge in Slovenia and indeed Europe, but globally.

I appreciated Ulla Engelmann's call, of DG Grow at the European Commission, for feedback on the GECES report 'Social enterprise and the social economy going forward' - asking for feedback on translation and into practice and sincerely hope that this offer is taken up. Social innovators themselves are best placed to champion the social economy from their own experience.

4. The crucial role of values

In February 2017, SIX hosted our first global Wayfinder event to explore the future of social innovation and our roles in getting there. There were some clear messages about the very core of what we do, why we do it, and why it matters. Values played a critical role at the Wayfinder - not only reminding us why we do the work that we do but also in catalysing conversations on how we instil these values into our global structures.

I instructed my panellists to be honest and open and it was refreshing to hear the conversation turning to values (a special thanks to Christoph Birkholz from the Impact Hub Zurich for initiating this). It was a distinct shift from the policy focus of the morning, and an important one. The social economy is ultimately about values and putting people first. To focus purely on policy and ignore this is a mistake.

I continuously recall Charlie Leadbeater's call to action from the Wayfinder, that we risk fetishizing both the notion of a social innovation movement and the language we use to describe it and 'forgetting the real language - the people, humanity, love- that actually guides this'.

5. Invest in people

During the morning coffee, I asked two local Slovenian social enterprises why they were there and their hopes for the conference. They replied with 'funding'. This is not surprising, as sustainability tends to be the thing that keeps this sector most awake at night (if not, a nightmare). I posed this question to my panel, asking what was needed more- skills or funding- to help more social entrepreneurs thrive. The answer was not funding, nor particularly skills. Rather, to invest in people and in teams.

Slovenia is truly a bridging state - in a geographical sense, it bridges the Alps to the Balkans to Eastern Europe. I look forward to the future and seeing how it can bridge the region in regards to the social economy. 

Follow Tadej Slapnik from the Office of the Prime Minister at @tadejslapnik for more information on their social economy initiative. The hashtag from the event was #ifeelsocialeconomy