The birth of a notion

tony balcony.225x225The birth of a notion – developing the model of societal entrepreneurship

Do you ever have that experience of hearing about something new and then everywhere you turn…? Of course you do. Recently I took on the role of project lead for a new community currency for my city in the NW of England. Then, all I heard on the media was ‘bitcoin’, new money, collaborative currencies, the Bristol, Lewes or Brixton Pounds. The same thing has happened with the notion of societal entrepreneurship. About nine months ago I wrote a brief article for 3rdi about ‘the emergence of societal entrepreneurship’ and, well, the baby seems to have come to birth.

Sometimes this phenomenon relates to our untiring human ability to make connections and relate things to our own situation. But, at others, it is because a real change is taking place in the world. In this case, I think it’s a bit of both. Since writing my piece here the lead Swedish commentators on this developing movement have published, last Christmas, the first main text on the subject (see reference below). At the same time, I have repeatedly encountered examples of societal entrepreneurship in practice and action.

A triptych of meaning

So, what distinguishes this conception from other understandings of how to bring social enterprise and the social economy to birth? There are, it seems to me, three elements of the emergent Swedish model which deserve some comment. The first is an emphasis on the change-making capacity of community politics; the second, focuses on the processes through which societal mobilisation occurs and, the third, recognises the importance of narrative in framing the ways in which social movements develop.

The distinction between societal and commercial market-based entrepreneurship points to the potential for local community mobilisation, beyond the heroic achievements of pioneering solo entrepreneurs. This is usually on the basis of meeting social, cultural and environmental needs, alongside the economic factors that influence disadvantage, exclusion, social deprivation and ecological damage. As such, ‘societal’ means participation in the struggle to create a more sustainable society, engaging all sectors in the ‘community’, not simply those involved in commercial entrepreneurship. The grand narrative of heroic entrepreneurship was hardly evident in any of the Swedish examples, which were, frequently, led by communities of women.

Berglund and Johannisson specify the processual nature of societal entrepreneurship as one of ‘bridging’ between the public, market and voluntary/ not-for-profit sectors, as social enterprise is understood in a Swedish context. It is in the process of working out the ‘organizational logic’ of new institutional forms, they argue, that societal entrepreneurship takes place through protest, the establishment of new practices and the formation of new bridging institutions.

They use the events of the Arab Spring to indicate an extreme example of the ways in which these processes can rupture conventional ‘webs of meaning’. The result of such activity can be to create entirely new entrepreneurial social forms, almost overnight. As such, they contend that the role of the hero (often male) entrepreneur needs to be downplayed. Rather, they suggest that social context, specific situations, unexpected events and timing are all more significant in preparing the processes that exemplify societal entrepreneurship.

Thirdly, Berglund and her co-workers indicate the importance of story, and not, simply, because they are wedded to Norse myths! They point out that every instance of societal entrepreneurship will have a narrative embedded within the local situation. These challenge the grand, heroic narratives of modernity, with their emphasis on “development”, as increasing economic growth.

The stories that emerge are smaller, more contextual and less concerned with how the great entrepreneur has vanquished the monster of economic recession or depression, and turned the fortunes of the society, industry, locality or university around. Instead, they focus on the micro-stories of ‘little people’. So often, these will usually tell about processes that mix success and failure, the tragic as well as the heroic, showing how the community has sometimes helped, sometimes hindered the expression of a new enterprise that leads to social change.

Putting the model together

Well, all this chimed with my experience. Certainly, I find that some days are charged with high intensity moving forward with the city’s transformation and other days are just charged to a dwindling bank account. But, all of this set me thinking about the connections between this new understanding and the ways in which we tend to consider social enterprise, entrepreneurship, and the social economy. The first fruit of that thinking are contained in the model presented below.

tony's model

It arises out of asking two questions. Firstly, who is the entrepreneur? Are they an individual or, as in the Swedish depiction, a community of social entrepreneurs, who are being brought together. Secondly, what is the purpose of the entrepreneurial activity? And that is not in the sense of whether or not there is a hybrid business model, concerning social as well as capital benefits, but whether or not the activity focuses on process or outcome.

The processes through which many solo entrepreneurs discover their personal vocation is often one of social entrepreneurship, helped by groups such as UnLtd, to release their creativity and talent for enterprise. Out of this process individuals will emerge, who are, understandably, focused on the need to develop and sustain their specific social enterprise – often supported by Social Enterprise UK, or a similar network. In some places such enterprises discover others, so that they navigate in the direction of developing an embryonic social economy, as described by Ash Amin (2009) (see reference below).

But, increasingly, we are beginning to see societal entrepreneurship as the effect, in the way that is described by Karin Berglund and her colleagues. This process will, in turn, spur others towards social entrepreneurship, as a greater community of social change-agency is generated. That is the theory.

Except that it is, also, the practice, as we are seeing in the setting of which I’m a part and which is replicated right across parts of the UK and in many other places. Although the story is not one of smooth success. The road is long, bumpy and full of pot-holes. Or, like birth (so I’m told), joyful, painful and full of blood, sweat and tears. Of course, if we are to focus on the stories of community processes, this will always be the way of societal entrepreneurship.


Berglund, K., Johannisson, B., and Schwartz, B., (2012), Societal entrepreneurship – positioning, penetrating, promoting, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar
Amin, A, (2009, Ed.), The Social Economy – international perspectives on economic solidarity, London: Zed Books

Tony Bradley, Director, The SEED Centre, Liverpool Hope Business School, Liverpool Hope University

2 Comments on The birth of a notion

  1. “The distinction between societal and commercial market-based entrepreneurship points to the potential for local community mobilisation, beyond the heroic achievements of pioneering solo entrepreneurs.”

    Couldn’t agree more Tony. The hero entrepreneur is, as you know, a model I would like to see disappear altogether, particularly in social enterprise. Success in business is very rarely, if ever, down to a single individual, no matter how enterprising, charismatic or dynamic that individual might be.

    Far better that enterprise develops from within the community to serve the needs of the community.

  2. Comment from Chris Cook, via Facebook.

    “Social Enterprise is not an Organisation – it is a consensual and collaborative agreement to self organise to a common aim.

    Women understand collaboration instinctively in a way that men do not.”

Leave a Reply to karen Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.