The Social Business

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 3)

How do you solve a problem like climate change – in Leeds?

Of all the social issues I’m involved in and care about, climate change is the one that matters most to me.  It is an existential threat – and we’re already seeing a whole range of negative impacts that have their roots in man-made climate change.

But it’s also one of those issues where it’s easy to feel hopeless.  It’s hard to know what to do.  And even if you do something, it can feel pointless.   So inaction, or disengagement, become ever-more attractive.  And the less we engage, the more time we waste, the less chance we’ve got of coming up with solutions.

Over the years I’ve tried to “do my bit” (see – even the language is problematic).  I’ve written here before about how we’ve tried to make our home more green (more problematic language).  I’ve written too about reducing our car use – and selling our car – and about big issues in Leeds – like transport and recycling.

And I’m pleased I’ve done all that.  It’s got us thinking about this stuff as a family.  It’s made a difference at a micro-level.  It’s saved us some money.  Made us feel a bit better about ourselves. And it’s got us into conversations with people we know.  Including difficult conversations, some of which probably haven’t done done much good.

But, of course, all of the things we’ve done are micro-scale, personal actions in a world that needs so much more to happen.  And they were all probably cancelled out by that flight to France last May.

It’s complicated isn’t it?

So I’ve been thinking again this year about what more I can do, particularly through work.

With this in mind, I recently joined the Leeds Climate Commission.   It’s due to launch publicly in September (if you’re interested in this kind of thing and would like an invite to the launch please let me know and I’ll pass on your request) and in broad terms it has a remit based around exploring how as a city Leeds does all it can to reduce its carbon emissions.

There are people from businesses and organisations across Leeds involved, with the Council and Universities taking a lead on bringing it all together.

My main aim in joining the Commission is to explore how we can come up with social business solutions to climate change in Leeds.  Sustainable ideas in both senses of the word.  I don’t know what they’ll be – but I’m sure there must be opportunities to develop ideas that could for example improve air quality, reduce waste, tackle traffic congestion, reduce fuel poverty, and reduce the amount of CO2 that we pump into the air.

The good thing is that the Board of our social enterprise, Social Business Brokers CIC, is keen for us to work more on this.  So they’ve given me a bit of time over the next couple of months to explore things in a bit more detail.

Could we help to develop some social business ideas in Leeds to tackle climate change?  Five years ago we decided to get involved in housing – and that led to us coming up with the idea for Empty Homes Doctor.  250 no-longer-empty-homes later, we’re still making a difference.

And on the back of that we got involved with developing Leeds Community Homes.  We played our part in raising £360,000 through a community share offer to create People Powered Homes.

So could we do the same on climate change?  Come up with sustainable social businesses that really make a difference?  I really hope we can.  And not just because it’s the issue that matters to me more than anything else.

I am increasingly convinced that many of the actions we need to take to tackle climate change are best taken at city level.  That’s the level at which you can engage citizens – and the level at which we could best appreciate the positive impacts of the changes we need to make to reduce carbon emissions.

So I’m on the lookout for ideas and opportunities – looking for clues, as it says in our 5 stage plan to creating change.  If you’d like to chat more, please say hello.



A few immediate thoughts on Leeds Transport Summit

It was the Leeds Transport Summit this afternoon. I thought I’d try to share a few quick thoughts about how I thought it went – and some of the key themes that emerged for me. You can see what other people thought on #LeedsTransport .

I thought that generally it was a good event. The Council were keen to make the point that it was the start of a wider conversation – to be held with Leeds citizens over the coming months. And as a starting point, I thought it went well. I have a short attention span – and I stayed interested until then end, so that suggests it was pretty good. Here are a few quick reflections:

Agreeing and communicating the long-term vision is crucial
This was the key theme for me, and came out in various ways in the presentations from various people, including Peter Hendy (Chairman of Network Rail), Cllr Judith Blake (Leader of Leeds City Council) and Professor Greg Marsden from Leeds University. In different ways, each of them said we need to work out what the end-game is – why are we going to invest, over the long term, in transport.

Peter Hendy was pretty clear that it was about the economy. Other speakers, whilst acknowledging the key importance of economic growth, looked more broadly at the social and environmental benefits of strategic investment in sustainable transport.

Peter Hendy also made a key point around the importance of a strong vision – in that it helps you to win the short-term arguments around issues such as road-space reallocation. It’s never easy, but if people can see what the long-term goal is, they may be more likely to accept short term inconvenience.

Personally, I think we’re really going to have to work at this one. I’m not a transport expert, but I’ve read enough to know that assessment models for transport investment are far from perfect – and they tend towards valuing economic benefits over everything else. This tweet from Leeds’ Chief Officer – Economy and Regeneration, Tom Bridges, summarises the problem we’ve got very well. I do think there are senior people in Leeds who get the fact that we need to think beyond economic benefits – but we’re really going to need to get our act together and make a broader case for transport investment- beyond the economic case.

Re-allocation of roadspace is on the agenda
People like me who are into walking, cycling and public transport bang on a lot about the need to re-allocate space on our roads. Transport professionals talk about the Reverse Traffic Pyramid – making it clear that you prioritise modes of transport that make the most efficient use of limited space. Reallocating road space was discussed by several speakers.

Now, talking about it is the easy bit. The hard part is doing it, as, many would argue, has been demonstrated by the design of Leeds soon-to-open Cycle Superhighway, which has notably not taken much space from cars. So there’s plenty to do here, but I think it’s positive that it was at least talked about, without any hissing or booing.

Are we entering a golden age for the good old bus?

The politicians who spoke were keen to emphasise that all options are on the table – and they recognise the need to be ambitious. But I heard more than I expected about buses. Clearly there’s a strong political will locally to take back control of buses after what many (including me) would argue are years of pretty disastrous de-regulation. Park and Ride was talked up too (@LeedsJourno will be pleased).

As I say, today wasn’t about deciding or announcing what the money will be spent on, but I certainly came away with the feeling that buses are going to play a big part in the future of Leeds public transport. That may disappoint some people. But – if coupled with a significant reallocation of roadspace to speed up bus journeys – maybe it could be a pragmatic, relatively cheap and quick way forward for Leeds. Again, I’m no expert, but I read enough to know that much of the smart money in cities around the world is on Bus Rapid Transit – investment in decent buses, on main routes, with top quality bus lane & ticketing infrastructure. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see us go down this road.

Involving citizens is vital

To say Leeds people are fed up with how things are is probably a bit of an understatement. Feedback sent via email before the Summit apparently included a pretty loud and clear message: “Whatever you do, just bloody get on with it.” We need to really engage Leeds people in this process, and that’ll take some thinking through. It was mentioned that Community Committees will be central to the consultation process. I’ll be honest, I haven’t been to a Community Committee, but I think we’re going to need to work a bit harder than that to truly engage local people in this issue. I don’t have the answers, but I hope we can look elsewhere at how other cities, like Toronto under Jennifer Keesmaat’s leadership – have involved local people in thinking through the future of their city.

And maybe, just maybe, we could host a meal for 500 Leeds people on the Inner Ring Road one evening this summer – to discuss the future of our city? What do you reckon?

A few thoughts ahead of the Leeds Transport Summit

We have a Transport Summit in Leeds this week – and the plan apparently is that it’ll be the start of a wider consultation process which will involve people across Leeds.

Following on from this post – in the days after the Trolleybus decision – I thought I’d gather together a few thoughts and share them here. Partly because I’m going to the Summit on Friday – and want to organise my thinking a bit – and partly because it might help to stimulate a few discussions, before, during and after the event itself.

As I said before, my main reflection is that Leeds needs to decide what kind of city it wants to be. For me, this isn’t about trams or trolleybuses, bus lanes or parking. It’s about what Leeds is like to live in – today and into the future. I think we’re all agreed that the way things are transport-wise in Leeds has all sorts of negative impacts. So I think it’s important to keep these things in mind as we discuss what we do next. So, in no particular order, here are the things going around my head.

Let’s learn from other places
There’ll be benefits of being late adopters of sustainable transport. If we’re open-minded (and don’t just say, Ah, but yes, but that’s Amsterdam/New York/Nottingham/Sao Paolo, that could never work here) then we could pretty quickly learn from what’s working elsewhere – whether that’s Bus Rapid Transit, high quality bike lanes, steam powered monorails, or whatever.

Be bold – and accept some people won’t be happy
Trying to please everyone won’t work. For too long Leeds has been built around the needs of the car-user – and a bit of tinkering around the edges isn’t going to fix that. Some big decisions about how we use our limited road space efficiently will need to be taken. That’s going to be tough – and we’ll need a few visionary leaders to take big decisions that might not be immediate vote winners.

Think of the health impacts of poor transport options

Which country is bucking the trend on obesity? The Netherlands – a country where cycling – aka active travel – is an easy thing for many people to do. Making it easier for people to make short journeys by bike or on foot could bring real health benefits for Leeds citizens – and, in the long term, ease pressure on health services. Pollution – a major issue in Leeds – needs tackling too. The number of people killed or seriously injured on our roads is way above the target we’ve set ourselves as a city – and it’s the vulnerable – children, pedestrians, cyclists – who suffer most. Our Director of Public Health writes award-winning reports that talk about the link between transport infrastructure and health – let’s make sure we use his expertise, and listen to him.

Let’s use data, openly

Leeds is deservedly well known for its embrace of open data. Let’s gather all the data we can to help us to make informed decisions about what we do next. Let’s think about all the different data sets that are out there – and gather them together for people to pull apart and learn from. Road casualty stats. Pollution data. Traffic speeds. Numbers of people cycling. Number of car parking spaces. Let’s get the data shared, so we don’t just end up relying on anecdata. This is particularly important if we genuinely want to think more creatively, and involve a wider group of people in discussions.

Let’s have lots of conversations

Data is good – but so is lived experience. Transport is one of those topics where most of us think we’re experts (and I’m guilty as charged). But, even with our limitations, and our confused energy, there’s no end of fascinating lived experience that could, if gathered in the right way, inform where we go next.

We need to talk about efficient use of limited space
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know I’m a fan of bikes. And walking. And decent public transport. You could be forgiven for thinking that I hate cars. It’s a bit more complex than that – I’m just very clear that cities built around cars work for no-one – including people who drive. It’s not about being “anti-car” (for the record I don’t own one, but drive a hire car when needed) – it’s more about wanting to use the limited space that we’ve got as efficiently as possible. Currently the easiest choice for many people to make in Leeds is to drive. One person in a large vehicle is, quite simply, not an efficient use of space. Pointing that out isn’t being “anti-car”.

Think multimodal
We all do it – but we need to move beyond defining people by their primary choice of transport. Cyclists, motorists…. Instead, let’s remember that most people are just trying to get around their city. They may or may not be happy with the choice they’re currently making. A “motorist” today could become a “cyclist” tomorrow if the conditions were right. And then a bus user, and a taxi rider. For me, the beauty of not owning a car is that we’re now free to make the best choice for each journey. Walk, bus, taxi, bike, hire car. Multimodal life could work for many of us.

It’s about poverty

Loads of people in our city can’t afford to run a car. That wouldn’t be too bad if the public transport was so good that you didn’t need one. But that’s clearly not the case. So it’s people in poverty who lose out most in cities with poor public transport. With poor transport options, leisure choices are more limited, and it’s harder to access jobs.

Don’t forget the kids
We’re aiming to be a child-friendly city. Great. Has anyone asked any kids what it’s like to get around Leeds? What it’s like to ride a bike, in the city of the Grand Depart? Or how easy it is to convince their parents that they can go off on their own into town, on public transport? Cities with decent public transport are much better places to grow up in. They are also safer places to live – witness how road casualty rates amongst young people are high – and rising – in our city.

It’s about the economy, stupid
Any measure to reduce car use – or to make car users pay the real cost of parking – is routinely met with a response along the lines of “But what about the economy?”. It’s assumed that the end of free parking, for example, will result in shops closing. Evidence appears to suggest that making it easier for people, for example, to cycle to the shops results in shops enjoying more trade. And, it’s pretty obvious that people sat in traffic jams – as so often the case in Leeds, aren’t contributing to the visitor economy by enjoying a pint in a locally-run craft beer emporium.

We need to value our streets as places
Streets are amongst the greatest – and most abundant – assets a city has. But what do we do with them? We mostly store vehicles in them, or we facilitate the free movement of motor traffic through them. We need to think what we can do to make streets more sticky, as Brent Toderian would say. Places that people want to hang around in, not escape from.

So that’s what’s going around in my head, before this week’s Transport Summit. I find it bizarre in a way that I spend so much of my thinking time on something so mundane – how to get around my city. Yet it’s one of the things that has most impact on my life, my wellbeing, and how I feel about my city. Conversations I’ve had with lots of people about this suggest I’m not alone. Gathering together these thoughts will hopefully help to start a few more conversations, and help us to work towards making Leeds a great city to get around, and live in.

How can we improve recycling rates in Leeds?

I’d never been to a hack before – and then I’ve ended up at two in the last week.

I spoke at an event on Friday which is exploring how to improve mapping of cycle routes in Leeds.  There are two more “warm-ups” and then the Hack My Route event itself – in the next few weeks.  There’s £4500 up for grabs for whoever comes up with the winning prototype.

Yesterday I went to what was termed a Recycle Hack – a Leeds City Council event, facilitated by Abhay Adhikari,  looking at how we can improve how we deal with domestic waste in our city.  Attendees were primarily council staff – plus a few people who do clever stuff with data, and a couple of interested observers, including me.

There’s a lot going on in Leeds with regards to sharing data more openly – and that was the starting point yesterday too.  The council have gathered together a range of data relating to domestic waste, including:

  • Bottle banks – locations and amounts of glass collected, by colour
  • Amounts of different types of waste collected at Household Refuse Sites
  • Information on bin wagon routes
  • Data on amount of waste collected on each household waste collection day
  • Information on contamination of recyclable waste

The data doesn’t seem to be online yet but I assume it’ll be published soon on Leeds Data Mill.

After a brief run through of the data (more about what data there was, rather than what it showed) we split into groups and began to explore what we might try to do with the information in the spreadsheets – with a focus on working out ways to improve how the city deals with its waste.

Our group focused on what information we thought it might be interesting to study in greater detail.  Pretty obvious things – like how different bin routes compare in terms of amount of waste collected, and percentage of waste sent for recycling.

We’d learnt earlier in the morning that all Leeds’ recyclable waste is sent for manual sorting to a privately run facility in Beeston, south Leeds.  One data set relates to the level of contamination of recyclable waste – for example by people putting general waste in their green bin – which (if I understood things correctly) in extreme cases can mean that a whole wagon-load of recyclable waste can be rejected and sent to landfill.  I left wanting to understand this more.  On which routes is there more contaminated waste?  Does “contaminated” mean “dirty” or does it mean “too much of the wrong sort of non-recyclable plastic”?  How is this dealt with?  What solutions might there be?

Another set of data I’d be interested in looking at more relates to areas of Leeds (around Rothwell) where households get food-waste collections. I’d be interested to see what impact that has had on recycling rates – and the amount of non-recyclable waste that’s collected.

In truth we didn’t have loads of time to explore things before we broke for lunch.  But we worked with one of the developers, Nick Jackson, (who’s also working with Leeds Empties on this open data project) to explore a few ideas – including improving the page on the Leeds Council website which lets people know when their bins are collected.  Apparently 40,000 people visit that page every month – so that’s a significant audience – potentially for information that may encourage people to recycle more.

As you’d expect, as you start to get into detail you realise that there are limitations to the data too.  There’s a natural desire to compare performance across the city – how does the prosperous suburb of Adel compare with inner-city Cross Green?  But in reality it’s more difficult – as the data gathered about waste collection relates to routes – which take in a number of neighbourhoods.  But as the data is explored in more detail other possibilities for better analysis may become apparent.  And, with time, there may be possibilities to gather data in different ways.

After the event I got into a few interesting conversations online.  I tweeted a picture of a leaflet that we’ve got on our fridge.



The leaflet was produced by Leeds University Union – and is aimed primarily at students in the city.  The issue that I mentioned before – about green bins being contaminated with non-recyclable waste – is a particular problem in student areas.  The leaflet shares information – in an engaging way – about what can and can’t be recycled in Leeds.

I learnt a lot myself – I now know that plastics with numbers 1 2 and 4 on them can be recycled in Leeds – but not others.  So, for example, most yoghurt pots can’t go in your green bin, whilst a lot of bottles can – but lots of bottle tops can’t.

Response to the leaflet on Twitter suggested that I’m not alone in being a bit confused about what you can and can’t recycle.  So maybe amidst all the talk of data we’ve found one low-tech solution – better information shared with all households.  A couple of local councillors picked up on the tweet so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there.

So it was an interesting day.  My main interest in this is environmental – but there could be clear financial benefits for the city too.  I don’t know the exact figures but dealing with the city’s waste clearly costs council tax payers a lot of money – at a time when the council’s budgets are under severe pressure.  So reducing the amount of waste we produce – and recycling more of it – makes sense for all sorts of reasons.

When I get more information about next steps – and when the data is shared – I’ll share it here and on Twitter.



The ups and downs of cycling in Leeds

If you told me that I might one day see the Tour de France pass within half a mile of my house, I’d never have believed you.

But that’s what’s happening in 10 days time.  And given my love of all things bike, it’d be fair to say I’m pretty excited about it all.

It’s great to see so much focus on cycling in Leeds.  Yet it’s got me thinking again (although to be honest I think about this stuff all the time) about my daily experience of cycling in Leeds.

And it’s been an eventful few days.  It all started on Twitter, with me responding to a tweet from West Yorkshire Police’s Roads Policing Unit.


I responded by re-tweeting the message (and the previous one which included a photo of the incident) and I also passed the tweet on to a cycling organisation, a website and a journalist – referring to what I saw as “victim-blaming”.

I’ll give you a bit of context – if you’re not, understandably, fully up to speed with the ins and outs of keeping safe as a cyclist on our roads.  I thought it was inappropriate to focus, in this situation, on whether the cyclist was wearing a helmet.  The issue at hand was a collision between a car and a bicycle – and as CTC subsequently pointed out, things aren’t quite as clear-cut as they might seem when it comes to helmets and safety:


There’s a wider point here too.  Whilst I think as a cyclist you need to do all you can to keep yourself safe, the thing that makes you most vulnerable is the behaviour of other road users.  I do all I can to anticipate danger when I’m cycling – but there’s only so much I can do.  Focusing too much on how cyclists can (apparently) “keep themselves safe” can take the focus away from the responsibility of all road users to act in ways that minimise risk to others.  Hence the call from me and others – and it’s a call you’ll hear time again – to lay off the “victim blaming”.

But it doesn’t stop here.  Later that evening I went to check my Twitter feed – and noticed that I’d been blocked by the RPU.  In Twitter terms, this means that you’re no longer able to follow what that user is saying.  It’s usually used when a Twitter user is being abusive.

Whilst I’m sure the RPU weren’t that happy with what I’d said (and I’d challenged them on other things previously) such as the tweet below, I think it’s an over-the-top reaction to block me.


And it appears that I wasn’t the only person to be blocked that evening….


We all make mistakes – so I’m open to the RPU acknowledging that this was an over-reaction.  However, it does raise questions about underlying attitudes at West Yorkshire Police in relation to road safety and cycling – questions which get louder when you see stuff like this, from last week:


I’ve written to the Police and Crime Commissioner about it all, and I’ll let you know when I get a response.

But amidst it all, cycling still brings great joy to my life.  And what better than seeing my son learn to ride his bike this weekend.  Here he is, practising hard:


My son learning to ride his bike

My son learning to ride his bike

I was there with him for over an hour, on a short cycle path next to Gledhow Valley Road, half a mile from our house.  Gledhow Valley Road is on my route to work – or at least it was.

I got fed up of being overtaken by speeding motorists – and decided to change my route to avoid it, whenever I could.  And, stood there for an hour, what I saw confirmed I’d made a good choice:

The joy I felt seeing my son ride his bike was immense – and at the same time I knew full well I’d never let him out on the roads near where we live.  That’s no good is it?

The day after we went out again, this time to Chapel Allerton Park.  And we popped in to Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op to get him a yellow jersey as a reward.  All ready for the Tour.

As we walked our bikes home I realised that the traffic was stopped – and a cyclist was lying in the middle of the road, clearly in pain.  It’s unclear what had happened – and who, if anyone, was at fault, but the incident took place at exactly the same place where I’d been stood the day before.

And, two hours previously, when I was cycling home, I’d had to pull into the gutter at exactly the same junction as a car overtook a left-turning vehicle – crossing dangerously to my side of the road.

I went back an hour later – the fact that all was back to normal – and I’ve seen nothing in local media – suggests to me that the cyclist wasn’t too badly hurt.  I certainly hope that’s the case.

But again, the joy I felt at seeing my son ride his bike had immediately been punctured by the reality of cycling in Leeds.  Our roads aren’t fit for cycling on.

What do you do?  Other people know more about this than I do – but certainly the #space4cycling campaign is starting from the right place.  The Council is also talking about Tour de France legacy today – here’s their discussion document.  Personally, I’m not wholly convinced that the Council is ready to take the tough decisions that need to be taken to make our roads safer for all – witness their current position on 20mph limits.  But it’s good that this stuff is being talked about.

So I’ll keep cycling, and you can bet that my son will too – he wants to do nothing else now. But I’ll keep banging on about how things aren’t good enough in Leeds – and elsewhere – too.

Social innovation, Danone style

I spent a fascinating couple of days this week at a Social Innovation Lab, hosted by Danone in Paris.

The Lab is an annual event for Danone staff to get together, with NGO partners (and this time with a handful of bloggers – including me and Mike Chitty from the UK) to talk about how Danone can be more socially innovative.

You may or may not know a lot about Danone. The extent of my knowledge about them was that they sell bottled water (not my favourite product) and lots of yoghurts, many of which supposedly help to make you healthy. You might, particularly if you’re into social business and read my blog, know about their alliance with Grameen in Bangladesh, selling nutrient-rich yoghurts, via self-employed women, who get support and finance from Grameen. And you’ll almost certainly remember their mmm…. Danone advertising.

Given what you may or may not know, you may be surprised to hear that their mission is this:

To bring health through food to as many people as possible.

I think that’s a great mission. Simple, understandable, and ambitious. And the Lab was partly about that ambition – how can Danone be socially innovative – at a bigger scale – and faster – than they are now?

It was genuinely fascinating and inspiring to see such a massive business where people where genuinely committed to how their business could have a social impact. This wasn’t some CSR nonesense, and there were no presentations from bosses who’ve just been on a course and who understood that “doing good” is the right thing to do.

Leadership came from the very top. On the Monday evening there was a Q & A with the CEO, Franck Riboud. He talked a lot about how for a business to be innovative, it needs to have humility in its business culture, and not assume that it has all the answers. This was true in the Q&A too – twice he said he didn’t have an answer to a question. Somehow I can’t imagine that happening in your average multinational, where the all-powerful CEO dominates – and influences the business’s culture.

I’m sure they’re not perfect, and I accept that we saw them at their best, but the two days opened my eyes to how powerful it can be when a successful, profitable big business puts social impact and innovation at the heart of what they do. Take, for example, the bonus system they have introduced for senior staff. One third of the bonus relates to personal goals. One third to Danone’s financial performance. And one third is related to social goals – including 22% linked to the achievement of ambitious CO2 reduction targets (30% across the business by 2012). This focuses minds.

Similarly, it was so refreshing to hear a big business talking comfortably and credibly about co-creation. Again, with the starting point of “We don’t have all the answers, let’s try to team up with people with whom we may find the answers”. That’s why so many NGOs – most of whom were partners of Danone in projects across the world – were there at the Lab too. This co-creation isn’t without its problems – one common issue related to the different pace (and speed of decision making) in some of the NGO’s in comparison with Danone. But the commitment is there to try to work things out.

I came away with lots of questions. Some about Danone – particularly around the long-term sustainability of bottled water sales in countries where the water is safe to drink (I understand the arguments in countries without safe drinking water).

But more of the questions related to the work that I do. Many of us get excited about social enterprise, and many people think that we need different ownership models – and that privately owned, shareholder driven businesses can never really help us to change the world for the better. But did Danone give me a glimpse of what a world could look like where big businesses went beyond CSR and put social impact at the heart of what they do? And should I be thinking how to work with other businesses to help them to do the same?

That’s partly why we’ve set up Social Business Brokers – which has an explicit aim to work with any business that is interested in having a social impact – not just social enterprises. As a social enterprise sector, might we need a similar shift in emphasis? Or are we going to keep telling people that we have all the answers? Are you listening Big Society people?

Big Society – or People Like Us?

David Cameron wrote, in the Observer yesterday, about his vision for the Big Society.

Before I write this, I feel I need to come clean about my political leanings. I’ve never voted Tory, have voted Labour most of the time, and have voted Lib Dem and Green on other occasions. I’m certainly not, and never have been, a strong supporter of any party, or a member of any. But, as I wrote in the Guardian last Wednesday, growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s means that I am pretty suspicious of the Tories, no matter how much they try to tell me that I should give them a chance.

But I do find a fair bit of what they’re saying interesting. How could I not? As someone who works with social entrepreneurs, I’m bound to be interested in a party that sees social entrepreneurs playing a big part in improving society and delivering services. I’m also a fairly big critic of the State, and do think that we waste a lot of money and human potential through centralised, bureaucratic decision making.

The strapline for my business is Make it your business to change the world. I bet it’s one that Steve Hilton would be proud of – bringing in the idea of business changing society – but also with a play on words which suggests that you shouldn’t wait round for other people to change things. Make it your business. Do it yourself. Be the change you want to see in the world.

So why am I sceptical? Fundamentally, I don’t trust where the Tories are coming from. I can’t help but think that deep down, there’s a deserving poor/undeserving poor narrative behind much of their thinking on society. People need to pull their socks up – and the State needs to facilitate that pulling up of socks. For too long it’s pulled people’s socks up for them – and whole generations have forgotten how to do it themselves.

I wouldn’t wholly disagree with that. But I worry where that goes next. How long do you wait for people to re-learn how to pull up their socks? And how much do you take into consideration other factors which may impact on the ability to learn the skill – and which caused the loss of the skill in the first place? Whilst, yes, ultimately I believe we each have to take responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in, there are far too many people who find themselves in situations which mean it’s very hard to progress. Wider social injustices – over generations – mean that change will take time. Sorry if this makes me a bleeding-heart liberal, but society is unfair. Many Tories don’t understand that, because, to put it simply, they’ve never directly experienced that unfairness – and it has never held them back.

Of course it will take time to change society. I imagine David Cameron would agree that, if he gets his chance, he won’t change society in one term. Yet I think their Big Society argument is too simplistic, and doesn’t really take into account what real life is like – and what may happen if Big Society replaces Big State.

They’re very excited about what we can learn from the online world. I love all the Web 2.0 stuff – the generosity of communities which maintain wikipedia, develop open source software and actively support eachother and share information through Twitter. But real life, in real neighbourhoods, is a million miles away from the online world. Part of the attraction of online networking is that you can scour the world for people who share similar interests to you. People define themselves into tight communities, where yes, there is some diversity and healthy debate, but where there is a lot of common ground and shared purpose. Quick progress is made because we find people like us to make progress with.

The places where most of us live aren’t like that. And face-to-face progress on issues that face my neighbourhood can be a lot more difficult than online collaboration to fix a website. Why? Because people are people. Put people in a room and they’ll argue. They’ll each bring their agendas. They’ll block progress on this issue because they felt they weren’t listened to on the last issue. They’ll enjoy being listened to – but won’t make too much of an effort to listen to others. Is that a bleak view of humanity? Perhaps it is. But have you ever been to an Allotment Committee meeting? Or a Tenants and Residents Association AGM? Wonderful, real, human, community action. But as labyrinthine as, and potentially less accountable than your worst local Council meeting.

I don’t hear the Tories telling us this story. All I hear is that there’ll suddenly be a great upsurge in community activity, with a great sense of shared purpose to build a new Britain. I don’t hear about the upheaval a retreat of the State could cause – and the difficulties that would come from an uneven patchwork of community action. Do they really believe that the people who are worst off are the ones that will benefit most from the opportunity to do it themselves? And are we ready for the friction that will come as communities which will take time to organise see how early-adopters are surging ahead, with the support of the State?

I think in broad terms the Tories are right on a number of issues. I do think the relationship between the State and the people has to change. I do think that more of us have to start taking responsibility for improving society, rather than retreating into our cosy homes and consuming our way out of having to worry too much about the slow disintegration of the community around us. I just think they’re being simplistic – and that their approach would lead to further social division as those who have power, income and contacts do well – setting up schools and improving services for people like us, whilst people who do need a helping hand are told that you just have to do it yourselves.

Putting your money where your mouth is

Here's an interview I did earlier this morning with Helen Seymour, from Headingley Development Trust.  

(Apologies for me muttering away in the background from time to time – I keep forgetting not to do that)

The Trust takes a socially enterprising approach to making Headingley a better place in which to live.  They recently supported a community buy-out of a local healthfood shop, and they are in the process of converting a former primary school into the Headingley Enterprise and Arts Centre.

I came across them through their relationship with Swillington Organic Farm.  Around 30 Trust members have committed to buy chicken and pork from the farm over a 6 month period – and have paid up front.  This gives Jo, the farmer, confidence – and cash – to rear the animals, in the knowledge that she has a market for them.

I really like this kind of business relationship.  I think we need more of this kind of thing.  Running a small business – particularly one with a lot of up-front costs and a perishable product – is an inheritently risky business.  It's good to find ways to share that risk a bit.  

If you'd like to know more you can get in touch with the Trust.

Welshcakes and Circus

Just taking time out from Voice to gather a few thoughts, after a slightly surreal opening plenary.

The main event today was the launch of the Social Enterprise Mark, which was brought to us with much razmattaz, a social enterprise circus performance and a loud bang, which o felt intimately, having sat myself on the front row.

Let me say this: more publicity for social enterprise: great great great. And they’ve shown they can do razmattaz. But it’s about more than that. Now we can start the debates- as encouraged by the new SEC boss.

I’m keen to read the criteria. My take, so far, is that I need convincing on the structures questions. I’m also keen to hear more about how much social reporting, externally verified, people will have to do.

I’m sure they won’t have all the answers yet, of course they won’t. But its fair to start asking the questions now.

Sent from my iPhone

Rob Greenland

Social Business Consulting

07905 800 710

Day 3 in Dhaka

I've handed over the blog for a week to Liam Black, who's in Bangladesh visiting Grameen. Here's his latest post…

Great day. Very inspirational session with our delegates about why they have come with us to Bangladesh. Lots of intriguing life stories: Harvard educated high achiever deciding she will change the world not through homeless soup kitchens but through a multi-national: "We employ 300,000 people. Imagine what can be achieved if I can effect only one degree change in behaviour aimed at social impact revolutionising the engagement of big companies in communities"; a young entrepreneur who doesn't want to be restricted now he's at scale "I fear losing the ability to carry on regardless"; the Scandinavian business leader with lots of money to spend on social change who wants to find out what else there is besides charity, how to "not only beg the money but create the money" like Yunus; the ex -punk rocker now a leading social business leader who wants to re-radicalise her enterprise and interested how Grameen keeps turning out new businesses in new markets (a bone marrow transplant service next year apparently!); the 31 year old social entrepreneur who wants to take her enterprise global from its roots in the North East of England. "I just want to be with people who love ideas and opportunities", said a teacher from Berkeley in California. And so many more. One woman summed it up for us all be saying she was here to immerse herself in five days' "wealth of wisdom, inspiration and passion".

Wisdom, inspiration and passion were on display in a tour de force by Shahidul Alam who gave us the history of Bangladesh, and illustrated his talk with the brilliant images of the photographers his company Drik champions and promotes. The photos showed us the beauty of Bangladesh and its people; the amazing tenacity and resilience of people in the face of the famines, floods, pogroms and stolen elections which have punctuated their lives since independence in 1971. A number of flinch moments as the racism, divide and conquer tactics and bad faith of the British colonialists were highlighted.  – if there are any commissioning editors reading this why aren't you buying their imagery??

And, then tonight, dinner with the some of the high command of Grameen including Nurjahan Begum, a tiny woman with a huge portfolio of responsibilities across the group of some two dozen Grameen branded businesses. Their generosity of spirit and willingness to be on the front foot seems to be a core characteristic of this intriguing organization. Tomorrow we are all day at Grameen HQ including two hours with Yunus. Cant wait.

Well, enough. I'm going to listen to the mighty Radcliffe and Maconie (gawd bless you BBC that iPlayer alone is worth the licence fee). Hopefully wont dream of logistics, delayed planes and the other organisational nitty griity which haunt my sub-conscious during gigs like this.

pip pip


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