Social Innovation and Social Enterprise: Report

By Ng Yi Shu

The recent socio-political developments in the form of the new National Conversation has brought into the spotlight civil society and freedoms of speech. However, one area that has been mentioned yet neglected is the area of social innovation and social enterprise. Social innovation is a process of cross-sector collaboration – the area between charity and capitalism – that results in innovative solutions to social problems. Social enterprise is a subset of this process. Yet, little is known about this sector apart from the occasional interest story brought forward by the media. theonlinecitizen puts this in the spotlight with our report on social innovation in Singapore.

Activism and social innovation play a large part in the area of civil society – the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens independent from the government (as defined from Activists and social innovators recognize certain issues that needed to be changed – be it through government or civil society itself.

Social innovators are activists who bridge advocacy work with other sectors, like business. Throughout history capitalist interests rarely mixed with interests of the broader society. However, in recent times, there were a few who realized that there was a dire need to begin to move beyond traditional forms of charity, which were based on the notion of altruism in people. One of them was Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered microfinance and became a leading innovator in the social enterprise sector, defined in the US as “an organization or venture that advances its primary social mission using business methods”. New strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations have been generated from the minds of these social innovators to resolve social issues that the government is unable to resolve fully.

Singapore’s growing social entrepreneurship sector is increasingly getting the limelight from government, academia and the media. Yet, not many youths are keen to go into social entrepreneurship.


What’s stopping youth from doing social innovation in Singapore?

A panel led by six leaders in the social innovation industry held at Singapore Management University on Saturday last week (as a part of Social Innovation Experience or SIX) discussed upon the issues that were stopping youth from social innovation. Panelists shared their stories on social innovation and the resistance they originally faced when they begun to work in the social innovation industry. They also shared ways which they thought would promote social innovation in Singapore.

In answering the question about the issues that were stopping youth from social innovation, the panel concluded that a culture of fear and introspection caused by competition has led to a growing belief that financial security is paramount to a secure future. This culture has led to youths not taking risks towards solving social issues, and hence has stopped them from doing social innovation.

This culture however might not remain for long. A poll of participants suggested that close to 80% of them had an emotional connection with world issues, especially social issues, and found resolving them important.

Despite the emotional connection and desire for change in social issues, young people find themselves unable to take the risk to commit to social change. It has been increasingly recognized that winning the rat race might not provide the satisfaction and happiness one yearned, and perhaps an alternative – that of the courage to give and the courage to change – is better than achieving mere materialist goals.

In promoting social innovation, one of the panelists, Tong Yee, said that he hoped youths of today would have ‘the courage to take (social) responsibility for more things.’ In having more responsibility, youths would have the ability to socially innovate new solutions to social issues, he added.

The courage to disregard Singaporean notions of what makes one successful and the courage to shape one’s own notion of success and living would play a great part in one’s character-building experiences. These choices to be courageous will build a new generation that would increasingly take part in advocacy and social innovation – a generation that feels rooted towards the home they would help to build. However, knowing what would shape one’s notion of success – or simply, one’s dreams – requires a certain degree of self-awareness building towards self-actualisation.


Cultural challenges in social innovation

The fear and introspection caused by a competitive system has led to a state where working in the social sector is discouraged. Society believes that not much financial security can be gotten from it, and gratification is seen as little if not non-existent. There is much to be done in the social sector, however, mainly advocacy work, capacity building and fieldwork and project management.

This work usually demands emotional energy and emotional resilience. Competencies with regards to the character of a person can be built in education, but the culture of competition and survival must first be changed among parents and teachers. This culture of competition and survival is entrenched within the assessments of parents and teachers such as ‘academic results of my children/students are important towards their future’ and ‘if my children don’t have good grades they will not have a good life’. Rooted in pragmatism, these assessments are at the core of the highly stressful school environment we see today.

In focusing on the building the character of students instead of building their intellect, we can build a society which would focus more on cooperation with one another instead of competition with one another.


Bureaucratic challenges in social innovation

Though there has been greater focus on social innovation in the areas of government and academia, seed funding for social enterprises remain elusive – only two programs are available to social innovators and social entrepreneurs, namely ComCare Enterprise Funding, which is given to social enterprises that hire disadvantaged persons and the Creative Business Fund.

Despite the lack of seed funding, however, the social innovation sector seems to be growing organically and independently without much aid from the government in itself. This is probably because of the focus on social innovation from academia – which has in part helped inspire youths in building change for their community.


Growing social innovators for the future

Cultural changes in attitudes towards giving would be crucial towards building social innovation. The beliefs that pragmatism is the way to go has been increasingly been shattered by a greater number of driven youths who count themselves as responsible citizens advocating and creating change – and this trend is something society cannot ignore.

However, there is an increasing need to build a society that values a character-building education more than an academically-centric one. We may have (comparatively) the best education system in the world and we may have students with the best academic results in the world – but the system that puts these in place would not be great if students ignore character-building curriculum to focus on their academic results.

That being said, it is perhaps gratifying that there are youths out there who are driven to create change in Singapore and the world.

Photo Courtesy: SMU Initiatives for Social Enterprise