“Standing on a burning platform” – highlights of the Social Enterprise World Forum, Edinburgh

Date: 26.09.2018

Peter Williams, DTA Wales Director


I was very fortunate to benefit from a bursary from Welsh Government (with San Leonard of Social Firms Wales and Menna Jones from Antur Waunfawr) to attend the tenth Social Enterprise World Forum in Edinburgh, from 12th – 14th September 2018.

I attend many conferences and policy forums which sometimes leave me with a sense of “déjà vu” but I attended the SEWF with an open mind and came away really inspired, particularly by the people that attended but also by the breadth of vision and ambition of the speakers and participants.

More than 1,400 social entrepreneurs, social and community enterprise practitioners attended, from 47 countries, along with Government representatives, investors, academics, young people, innovations and thinkers.  There is a good summary of the highlights, from 40 speakers and delegates at the SEWF by Impact Boom and extracts from the main debates are on the SEWF Facebook site

San and myself arrived too early for registration on the first day (a first for me!) and were sent away and by serendipity ended up in Grassmarket Café (info@grassmarket.org), a social enterprise supporting vulnerable people coping with homelessness, addiction and a range of challenges.  Talking to the right person, wearing the right t-shirt, Claire Pattullo from Edinburgh Social Enterprise we managed to piggyback on a British Council sponsored tour of social enterprise cafes in Edinburgh, led by Zakia Moulasui, founder of the inspirational, Invisible Cities, social enterprise who train people affected by homelessness to become walking tour guides.  I spoke to people from Fiji, New Zealand and Khazakstan on the tour, hearing how they are building networks, tackling big issues in their countries.

There were so many inspiring stories, people and social enterprise examples and ideas at SEWF, it is hard to capture them all here but there was an overall sense of urgency too in the face of tremendous challenges, if social entrepreneurs and people want to change the world and a call for action or a stepped change.  Indy Jahor in particular challenged delegates to be “deeply audacious” in taking action, thinking really big in terms of ideas and impacts, “if we don’t, this world is going to hell in a handcart”.  Lord Victor Adebowale reinforced this message saying “I believe social enterprise is the future of business.  But we are running out of time.  We are standing on a burning platform – not just economically, but environmentally and politically”.

As impact boom picked up, another key message of the forum was the importance of genuine collaborations and developing solutions and ways of working and action, collectively (locally, nationally and internationally) and across sectors and disciplines, cutting silos of bureaucracy and thinking.

Social enterprise ‘ecosystems,’ (at all levels of practice, learning and policy) rather than engineered solutions, was another key theme, with examples from Scotland and a number of other countries and social enterprises, communities of social enterprises leading the way and driving change, which was met by commitment and support from Government and significant changes in policy and legislation.

The need for inclusivity of race, gender and age was particularly highlighted each day and the need to involve young people and children in particular, in building and creating a different future, big ideas and new ways to drive social change, locally and globally.

There was a plea to make social enterprise and entrepreneurship accessible to all, that anyone can get involved with, not just an ‘elite sport’, for a privileged and educated few. One delegate talked about ‘changing the way we spend our money can change the world.’

Other high notes for me were the inspiration and leadership the Scottish social and community enterprise movement give to creating change, which is now recognised internationally, as a global leader. Scotland now has more than 5,600 social enterprises, bringing in revenue of £3.8bn but a third of those have developed in the last 10 years.

At the forum Deputy First Minister John Swinney spoke of the social enterprise and social change, in the Scottish Government as being one of the greatest achievements. This was also evident by presentations by Aileen Campbell MSP. They are moving beyond ideology and policies, to legislating and driving change and responding to significant challenges.

Inspiring speakers I got to catch demonstrated the huge diversity of social enterprises and approaches globally such as DC Central Kitchen (USA), Street Soccer Scotland, Tebita Ambulance (Ethiopia) and Whiz Kids (Ethiopia).

The Cordant Group UK highlighted the changing nature of corporates and collaboration with social enterprises, Non traditional business models pioneered in the social enterprise sector included Madlug (Northern Ireland), Good Cycles (Australia), AKI Energy (Canada), Solar Ear (Brasil), Auticon (UK), Digital Superheroes (Thailand) and Social Good (Brazil).