Social enterprise beyond the smart city

It can be challenging to start or grow a social enterprise when you are cut off from some of the more obvious sorts of sources of funding, news, and community that you might get from growing an organisation in a densely populated area. Cities enjoy a number of advantages simply because there is easy access to other organisations – all working in the same local ecosystem as you – for mutual support. However, the balance is shifting as new ways to interact and collaborate are enabled both by improved connectivity, and by the availability of open data.

At ODI Devon, we talk a lot about open data and sell the commercial benefits, in that it can allow new startups to flourish based around the insights or interfaces it comes with, or that it can lower costs for established businesses. We also talk a lot about the public sector and improving the quantity and quality of data that it releases to both improve the lot of commercial organisations and to improve transparency and democratic accountability. Between these two models, however, lies a set of benefits for social enterprises and in our minds this is a place where the benefits of the free flow of public data really becomes apparent.

Social Enterprises all need to run on a sustainable business footing, of course, but they also need to do less tangible things, such as demonstrate the impact of their work or improve their outcomes in public sector procurements; they might need to pitch for grant funding having recognised a social or environmental problem, and market themselves as having a strong track record towards regional, national, or European bodies; they’ll almost certainly need to understand their commercial competitors, improve their efficiency and sustain their business model.

We think that the freer flow of data is a critical success factor for all of these things, but most of the attention on helping organisations make the most of this new opportunity is centred on cities. Not only do cities enjoy much higher connection speeds (Gigabit Bristol anyone?) but millions is being poured into initiatives to improve urban data handling and exploitation.

It seems clear to us that there are a few problems with this. Firstly, if city economies grow faster than rural productivity then – at a very basic level – we have a sustainability problem as sources of food will need to be found further afield. Secondly, the smart cities agenda seems very technology driven and lacking the focus on people that will really make it stick. Finally, the underlying problem is one of human exploitation of technology and data, not the technology or data itself, and very few smart city initiatives invest directly in people.

It seems to follow, then, that a focus on helping social enterprises with their challenges both beyond the city limits, as well as within them, along with the possibilities inherent in open data and new technologies, is going to be where the maximum benefits can be gained. For these reasons ODI Devon is organising the Beyond the Smart City conference (25 – 27 June at the Met Office in Exeter) to focus the attention of policymakers, social entrepreneurs, public sector officials, civic technologists and open data professionals on these questions – and we think you should join us. We have a fantastic line-up of lightning talks, speakers, and workshops planned but there is still room for more ideas so that the agenda is shaped by the people who really matter – that means you.

Let’s re-take the Smart agenda – we hope to see you in June!

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