Saturday, February 7, 2004

Social capital and a lack of public engagement

I've been enjoying conversations with Diego Doval recently, and maybe the latest topic most of all: ideas and practices that can loosely be tied to an interest in the social economy.

Diego recently posted on how - and why - he works, including his attitudes toward business:

A company shouldn't, can't, be an end in itself ... A successful company (IMO) is not one that only makes money (although that's important of course) but also contributes to the life of its employees, its community and society, and does its part, to put it simply, in making things better.

I commented there that this reminds me of social entrepreneurship - which means anything from socially responsible innovation to entrepreneurial approaches to social problems. Either way, two things immediately come to mind: first, its very name implies that other types of business are not socially responsible (a position with which I generally agree, but that's because I really dislike conservative politics and unbridled capitalism in general); and second, that even socially responsible entrepreneurship needs to be held accountable. (After all, good intentions do not ensure good consequences.)

My friend Peter Levesque and I have talked about social entrepreneurship many times, and like him, I was thrilled to hear our new Prime Minister's response to the Speech from the Throne last week, and his support for Canada's "social economy." And again like Peter, I hope he will be a man of his word:

Enhancing quality of life in our cities is about wanting to help each other. It is about a willingness to work together to build great places to live. Today this willingness is everywhere in Canada. We see it in the efforts of a million Canadians working in the voluntary sector ... We see it in the efforts of the people who are applying entrepreneurial creativity — not for profit, but rather to pursue social and environmental goals. That’s what we call the social economy — and while it may be a less familiar part of our economy, we must not underestimate its importance. Its contribution to the social fabric and to the economic vitality of our municipalities, urban and rural, is real and is growing ... The people who are dedicated to these efforts understand the power of the social economy. The people themselves represent a powerful social resource, and it is high time that the federal government recognizes this. We intend to make the social economy a key part of Canada’s social policy tool kit.

I guess what I really want to say is that I expect the same thing from my government and from business: ethical behaviour for and with the people. I believe that just as democratic governments need to come up with new and better ways to have their constituents' voices heard, so too social entrepreneurs need to find just ways of interacting with their clients and customers.

You see, I think there is a fine line between acting for the people, and with the people. The former becomes patronising and fosters dependency. The latter respects difference and creates independence and reciprocity. And I'm interested in ways of keeping governments and social entrepreneurs honest and accountable. They have power, and with power comes responsibility. And I believe it will take these and other groups working together to ensure that people and just relationships are valued in the research and development of emerging social technologies. But that again raises the issue of insufficent public forums - commons - for these encounters and negotiations, and I'll leave that to another time.

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