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General, Management

Worth every penny – Social change ideas and practice in three contemporary Finnish social enterprises

Social entrepreneurship is often about change in attitudes and behaviour. According to the findings of my PhD research project, contemporary social entrepreneurship in Finland makes no exception. In this blog post I focus on three owner-managers’ ideas of and practice for social change. Finally, I ask you to share your own ideas.

My two cents
It is only fair to start by telling you my own ideas concerning social change and how social entrepreneurship relates to them. Change is an ambiguous thing to study[1], and still that is what intellectually inspires me, and many others. When starting out my PhD research I thought that there is something wrong in the way economic activity seems to override non-economic aspects of life although the needs are obvious, namely environmental degradation[2] and increasing social inequalities[3]. Thus, economic activity cannot take place in a vacuum and cannot consider all aspects of social life. As you might already guess, this was the point in my PhD project when social entrepreneurship stepped in. To me it seemed – and still to some extent does – that those engaging in social entrepreneurship (and activities alike) are doing something differently. More importantly, they try to change society via economic activity. Of course, they might not succeed, but that’s a theme for another blog post.

Three contemporary social enterprises
I have research data from eight contemporary Finnish organisations. By ‘contemporary’ I mean that these organisations do not fulfil the institutional categories of social entrepreneurship in Finland. First, they are not work-integration social enterprises employing long-term unemployed or disabled people as defined by the Finnish law on Social Enterprises[4]. Second, they are not municipal service providers in the social and welfare sector nor they are third sector owned enterprises. Third, none of these organisations have yet applied for the Finish Social Enterprise Mark[5]. Fourth, they are all set up within the last 10 years. Yet, the owner-managers of some these organisations explicitly define them as social enterprises.

Here I will discuss three organisations, namely Hila Open, Hub Helsinki, and Remake Ekodesign, all defined as social enterprises. Hila Open is a limited company aiming to open up public sector decision-making processes by offering open data consultation, implementation services, and software development. Their flagship project earlier was an online service Fillarikanava where bicyclists can openly report about problems in their bike routes to the city civil servants.

Hub Helsinki is a cooperative established in 2009 aiming to catalyse social innovation, promote social entrepreneurship, and incubate new ventures. It belongs to the global network of Hubs established in London. The cooperative consists of users with different roles: cooperative members, users of the space, hosts managing the space, board of directors, and project partners like the city of Helsinki.

Remake Ekodesign is a limited company aiming to reduce the textile waste problem in developed countries by extending the use of garments by remodelling them according to customer’s wishes. During the service they engage in a dialogue with customers about sustainable consumption. The service is offered in a space in which they have also other ecological services.

I have analysed the interviewees conducted with the owner-managers of the organisations; the persons owning and managing the organisation at the same time. In the interviews, the owner-managers talk about social entrepreneurship in general in addition to their own social enterprise.

Social enterprise owner-managers’ two cents for social change
It is noticeable that all owner-managers think they can impact our society. For Hila Open’s owner-manager, listening contributes to change: the more people are listened to, the more they provide valuable information, and the more they provide information, the better decisions are carried out. In the case of city bicycling, the cyclists take same routes day after day and notice any unfavourable changes in them. Instead of contacting the civil servants individually or only when citizens are asked for an opinion, the users can contribute to an open service. Additionally, the interviewed owner-managers work with other open data projects, for instance open data journalism and consulting different parties for opening up and using open data.

For Hub Helsinki change stems from enabling meetings of people and the exchange of ideas. Via meeting likeminded people the users team up and create projects possibly changing the world. The working space in the city centre has regular users renting in the space and irregular users visiting public events. The Hub spirit includes space with no walls and encouraging informal chats and sharing information about projects. This habit of sharing has initiated various projects, which might create radical change, such as improving primary education or localising food systems.

In Remake Ekodesign, the owner-manager considers that change originates from what happens in people’s minds. In addition to ‘remaking’ the garments, they try to change customers’ attitudes. For them, the financial risk of entrepreneurship is ‘worth every penny’ if they have been able to change at least someone’s thinking toward less consumption and use of resources.

The owner-managers use their own expertise and put their values at work in order to influence others and speed up change. Sometimes this appears anything but easy as they are simultaneously creating a new market and sustaining a business, which requires varying skills. Furthermore, sometimes owner-managers feel powerless. Thus, their ideas concerning social change are personal and tested constantly in the everyday life.

By declaring their ideas and acting for change, the owner-managers have mobilised support. Hila Open owner-manager has teamed up with other open data enthusiasts. In Hub Helsinki guarding the Hub spirit guarantees that they have inspired old and new members. Similarly for Remake Ekodesign, declaring values has brought involved customers.

Your two cents?
I argue that everyone has an idea how social change takes place. For some it means that trying out anything is useless as we cannot have an impact. For others nothing is impossible as we can change the world if we want to. Now, how do you think we can create social change?

 


[1]McLeod, J., & Thomson, R. (2009). Researching social change. Los Angeles: Sage.

Eeva_Houtbeckers

Eeva Houtbeckers, M. Sc (Econ.), is a PhD candidate in Organization and Management studies, Aalto School of Business. Her PhD research deals with contemporary social entrepreneurship in Finland. She studies microenterprises aiming for social change and creating something new from almost nothing. Her academic inspirations include entrepreneuring, emancipation, and bricolage. In addition to research, Eeva has been teaching for instance social entrepreneurship. Outside academic work, she is enthusiastic about creative writing and science fiction literature.

E-mail: eeva.houtbeckers@aalto.fi
Twitter: @aatteinen
Blog: aatteinen.wordpress.com
Research group: http://management.aalto.fi/en/responsibility
Academia.edu: http://aalto-fi.academia.edu/EevaHoutbeckers

About emesphdnetwork

EMES is a research network of established university research centres and individual researchers whose goal is to gradually build up a European corpus of theoretical and empirical knowledge, pluralistic in disciplines and methodology, around “Third Sector” issues.

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