In this anthology, I challenge the next generation of social enterprise leaders to embrace preemption as a critical tool for the impact-centered business-design process. “Toward a Preemptive Social Enterprise” is a manifesto and series of essays, scenarios, and tools that aim to challenge a constantly evolving industry to think bigger. The theory of preemptive social enterprise is built upon a critical observation: conventional social entrepreneurs are limited by a culture of innovation that is exclusively rewarded for the art of reaction. While many consumers celebrate the modern social entrepreneur’s ability to react and program their business around critical causes, I argue that this trait may be among the biggest shortcomings of the field.
In the 18th century, just three decades prior to the birth of Leland Stanford, Adam Smith defined “entrepreneur” as a person who acts as an agent in transforming demand into supply. This specific definition, the concept of an entrepreneur as a supplier of what the customer wants, is in agreement with many definitions that preceded Smith. However, this was not a philosophy that remained a static definition of the practice.
In his book, The Design of Business, Roger Martin speaks of entrepreneurship and innovation as a way of seeing the world “not as it is, but as it could be.” The book goes on to argue that true innovation stems from the exploration of problems that cannot actually be found in history or proven by data. Perhaps in a more extreme use of language, Erik Reis offers up another take on the practice defining entrepreneurship as the act of creating something new under “extreme uncertainty.”
From juxtaposing the 21st century definition of the field with the 18th and early 19th century definitions, it might seem as though entrepreneurship has evolved from a practice that supplies a demand to a profession that creates demands—from a field of regurgitation to a practice of innovation. However, these theories are not honest representations of the true landscape of contemporary social innovation.
Business theorists believe that consumers only know what they need after a change or event has taken place. Therefore, entrepreneurship is always a response, or a reaction. This is especially relevant in social enterprise, a field of business that is solely rewarded for its triumphs in sub-optimal situations. As practitioners of social enterprise, we hold the assumption that our responsibility is to exclusively act post-crisis in order to gradually chip away at a persistent problem, or to maintain a state of peace. The art of reaction is necessary, but the expectation of post-traumatic innovation as the singular starting point for an entire industry is limiting.
We need to change this limiting outlook on social entrepreneurship by suggesting a new category within the field that is not a response, but a catalyst: Preemptive Social Entrepreneurship. What if social enterprise was also responsible for preemption? What if social entrepreneurs were also futurists?
Matthew Manos is the founder of verynice, a global design, strategy and foresight consultancy that gives half of its work away for free to non-profit organizations. He is also the author of “How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free,” the creator of the Models of Impact project and an Adjunct Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at the California College of the Arts’ MBA in Strategic Foresight program.
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