POPse revs up the UK’s social enterprise sector
It’s normal for any movement to find itself stuck in a rut from time to time. And with the global recession still having an effect on the market, the social enterprise movement has, like all sectors of the economy, faced limitations and constraints due to lack of resources.
But what may seem like a setback can become an advantage when approached with enthusiasm and open-mindedness. That’s what motivated a group of professionals to form POPse, a week-long think-tank that “popped up” recently in London to generate debate on issues related to social enterprise and innovation.
Rather than seeing the lull in the economy and their careers in a negative light, POPse’s organizers took the moment as an opportunity to reinvigorate the sector, hash out important national issues, and broaden their social networks.
Dowser: Where did the idea for POPse come from?
Nick Temple, organizer: A few of us were free of affiliation to any organization, by choice or circumstance. We had a feeling that we wanted to do something a bit creative. At the moment in the UK a lot of organizations are focused on survival, delivery – so no one’s doing the big picture, forward-thinking in the sector at the moment. So we thought we’d combine those two opportunities and provide a catalyst for getting out of this rut.
A pop-up is normally a short-term retail outlet. It puts under-used assets back to use to regenerate a community. So we were putting our under-used assets, i.e. our brains, to use.
What were the gatherings like and where did they happen?
There are a lot of empty retail outlets around London now because of the recession. We took over a former Subway franchise on a really busy street in north London. We repainted and helped sort out the space so it was more fit for a think-tank than fast food.
We think we might be the first pop-up think tank – but there’s no way to prove it. There were roundtables, interviews with key people, and in each of those areas there’s a report coming out that will go to the relevant audiences for that topic.
How did you find participants or how did they find you?
The great thing about being in a retail space was that people would just come in. It wasn’t just the usual suspects. People came in from the street – a guy whose mother is suffering came in and got involved in our debate about health care.
The only rule for participants was that they weren’t affiliated with an organization so that they were freer to be more creative – they weren’t bound to a funder or the government. People just heard about us online or networks and got involved. We divided the week up into themes around the social entrepreneurship and innovation space, and for each day we gave one person the lead on that day’s topic.
About how many participants joined you?
We normally had about twenty people in our roundtables, and then maybe 50 people dropping in later for our evening events. So about 50-100 people per day.
How did you and the other POPse planners determine those topics?
There are some big thorny issues in the UK right now: social investment is growing as a concept, and a lot of discussion centers around the Big Society Bank -what does it look like, how does it operate? Is Big Society an opportunity for social entrepreneurs or the biggest challenge they face?
We were feeling that the social impact space was a bit stuck – ‘I prefer this tool, you prefer that tool, let’s call the whole thing off.’ But can we agree at least on shared approaches and principles, if not tools?
I’m curious how the discussion about the Big Society Bank went and what people in the UK are saying about that program.
Generally people tend to say it’s the right policy at the wrong time. It’s amazing for us that a Conservative government is placing civic action and social responsibility at the heart of their agenda. But they’re doing it at a time when they are also making cuts, so there are those who’d say it’s just a fig leaf for cuts.
We tried to move away from defining Big Society – a definition just doesn’t get us far. We were more interested in how we might try to implement it. How to create a big society that’s made up of small communities? So then we talked about communities, what forms them, how to build social capital, how to move away from being a kind-of fragmented society.
What were the advantages of hosting a short-lived event, rather than creating a permanent think-tank?
I think it gave it an energy, a freshness. It allowed us not to be too stale, to get energized, excited. We didn’t have to think about what think-tanks have to – a sustainable business model. We could string it together with volunteers.
A lot of people have been asking what we’re doing next – are we going to do it locally, do it internationally, commission it. To be honest we were really just thinking about popping-up for a week, giving instructive, challenging input, then disappearing. We don’t have to become a monolith and part of the infrastructure.
And we had fun, that’s quite key.
We had some jokey stuff, like a positive and negative social enterprise playlist – so on the A side “Don’t Stop Believing” and then on the B side “Another One Bites the Dust.” And then we did something called the 100 social enterprise truths, a mix of wisdom and whimsy, just to put some stuff out there that provokes and challenges and we thought quite funny. That went around on Twitter quite a bit.
The idea was to have a nice mix of fun stuff and constructive, thoughtful, credible stuff that we hope will change things.
Interview has been edited and condensed.