Reflecting on Social Enterprise World Forum 2023: Key Learnings for Advancing Social Enterprise Globally

a women standing on stage next to a sign reading SEWF

Last month, our team from CEIS attended the Social Enterprise World Forum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. This global gathering featured social entrepreneurs and supporters from over 80 countries, providing us an invaluable opportunity to connect and reflect on the state of social enterprise both in Scotland and worldwide.

There were many inspirational examples of social enterprises enacting real change for people and planet. As our CEO Martin Avila commented, “The diversity of models on display was striking – from Blue City in Rotterdam creating circular economy solutions, to Colourful Goodies in Amsterdam promoting inclusion through its doll designs. It is this breadth of approaches that makes the social enterprise movement so vibrant.” 

Equally apparent at the Forum were the common challenges social enterprises everywhere face. Be it in Scotland, Rwanda or Indonesia, access to finance and markets remain obstacles for many, as does measuring social impact in a consistent way. But there is much knowledge to exchange between geographies. As University of Strathclyde Professor and CEIS Board Member Sreevas Sahasranamam observed, “Solutions pioneered in one place, like digital platforms for social enterprises, can cross borders and adapt when shared effectively.”

Scotland: A World Leader but Needing to Learn

Scotland is recognised internationally as a leader in social enterprise, with progressive government policy, data like the biennial Social Enterprise Census, and business support programmes. But it cannot rest on its laurels. To maintain its edge, Scotland must continue reaching outwards, supporting exchanges between social enterprises globally, and learning lessons from around the world. 

In particular, we feel Scotland could better embrace approaches from the Global South, where social enterprises address entrenched development challenges and paper over gaps left by government. As Professor Sahasranamam noted, “I think we could bring in styles that look at ventures in different countries on a common theme. There is likely more learning to be found between Kenya and India than there is from us in Scotland transmitting to them.”

Our CEO Avila concurred, commenting that “we have been really keen to stress that there are three aspects of internationalisation – not just bringing people to Scotland, but also creating that space for knowledge exchange. If we’re carrying the remnants of colonial mentalities, we’re at risk of saying – ‘can you learn from Scotland?’ That feels quite paternalistic.” 

“What we should be doing is using the privilege that we’ve got to facilitate these conversations on a global level, to understand what we can learn from each other. And actually, when we recognise that we’ve got that privilege – which cannot be extricated from the past that allowed us to have this level of economic development – then it’s almost like a form of reparations to connect and learn,” Avila continued.

Aligning Policy and Social Enterprise

There are also opportunities to align social enterprise more closely with public policy aims in areas like housing, climate change and local economic development. Future national strategy on social enterprise in Scotland could bring government, social enterprises and universities together to map a more ambitious path.

As our CEO explained, “social enterprise, as it is in Scotland, touches on a number of different policy areas. It touches on land reform, housing, employment and inclusivity, the just transition, and education through the entrepreneurial campuses. Right now, we have a ten-year strategy, but if we really want to be ambitious, I think maybe ten years isn’t enough. We want to say, where do we want to be in 30 years?”

He continued, “if we really want to be ambitious, I think it needs to go longer, harder, involve more people, and really be truly co-produced between social enterprises and government.”

Representing the academic perspective, Professor Sahasranamam noted that “the Social Enterprise Census could potentially be better linked to where we want to be in the future, collecting information on current status and feeding that into policy in a more streamlined way.”

Global Leadership through International Collaboration

By being open, humble, and embracing experimentation, Scotland’s social enterprise sector can continue maturing and cement its position as a global leader. The Social Enterprise World Forum reinforced that inspiration and answers can come from our own back yard as much as far-flung nations. The ethos of the sector is about global people power to create a fairer world.

Collaboration is key. We want to collaborate internationally to uphold Scotland’s reputation in this space.

By embracing diversity of thought and models, the Social Enterprise World Forum demonstrated the full potential of the social enterprise movement worldwide. With openness to new ideas and a commitment to meaningful collaboration, Scotland can continue to lead and learn.

Get in touch today to explore opportunities for collaborating and supporting social enterprise growth between Scotland and your region.

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