SEWF 2016: Reflecting on Scotland's social enterprise ecosystem

Last month, over 1000 social enterprise leaders gathered in Hong Kong from across the world to attend the annual Social Enterprise World Forum.

The event welcomed an amazing collision of people, ideas, and learning experiences from over 60 different countries. I remember thinking what a great testament it was to its founder, Gerry Higgins at CEIS, who kick-started the Forum right here in Scotland eight years ago.

This year, the discussions delved into a variety of topics like social finance, the role of technology, the power of storytelling, and many lessons of success - from as far and wide as Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and (of course) Scotland.

In fact, the one that particularly stood out for me was looking at what we call ‘the ecosystem of support’ and the governments’ role in creating capacity for social enterprise. Of course, levels of support vary internationally. Some countries like Vietnam, are only now beginning to officially recognise social enterprise as a legal model.

But in Scotland, we have ten years of evolved thinking to share, which was why hearing Laura Worku (from the Third Sector Division) talk about Scotland’s enterprising third sector action plan, and most recent international strategy for social enterprise, was one of the highlights of the Forum.

Now, it could quite possibly be that I’m becoming an anorak, but the topic opened up conversations that were incredibly interesting to me. Especially as I had spent an hour with a remarkable social entrepreneur, Cliff Colquhoun (founder of the Community Business and Environment Centre in Kaitaia) who was on his own journey of supporting the creation of a New Zealand ecosystem.

This is where it got creative. I’d quickly reached to grab the closest pen and paper, and started drawing out pictures of our ecosystem here in Scotland. Talking to different aspects that fed into this, like business support, policy development, procurement, asset transfers, and social investment. Drawing arrows in to show the role of learning and development as part of this ecosystem, in developing people’s practice of leadership and entrepreneurship so they can enable healthier, more resilient organisations. 

But then he turned and said, “Ok, let’s say you could start again with a blank piece of paper... what would you do this time around?”

Hmmm. I had to stop and think. It instantly reminded me that though it’s important to acknowledge the great things that Scotland can share with other countries, we can’t forget to reflect on how we could make it better.

More so, how we can use it better? I wonder how many organisations take a moment to think about what’s already available, and whether they’re taking full advantage of that support. It’s a difficult, and often turbulent environment out there. By continuing to invest in ourselves, our teams and organisations, we not only overcome these inevitable challenges, but we actively appreciate the support that countries from around the world look at, with something approaching envy.

Conveniently, next year’s Forum takes place in New Zealand, so I look forward to reconnecting with Cliff there, and seeing how he got on with his drawing.


Neil McLean is Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise Academy. Since 2012, the Academy are responding to international demand through a social franchise model of replication that is adaptive to local context and need. To find out more about how they replicate internationally:

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