Social Enterprise Summit 2013 took place on 29th and 30th November at Hong Kong with the theme of “Innovation for good”. More than 1,300 people, not only locals but also from Taiwan, Mainland China and some other countries, joined this conference to share their experiences, knowledge etc.
A feature which distinguishes this conference from other similar conferences all over the world is the sponsorship of HSBC (Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, with its global headquarter located in this city) and British Council. Hong Kong was a British colony as recent as up to 1997, which means that people over 35 spent more time as British subjects than as Chinese citizens, and the pro-Anglo-Saxon atmosphere was found everywhere. You can see past conferences’ programmes at their website and you’ll be surprised to find the predominance of speakers from UK and other English-speaking countries in comparison with the little number of presentations by people from other Asian countries and the lack of speakers from Continental Europe, but this explains what taste people from Hong Kong have.
The conference started with a Cross-Country dialogue with four policymakers, with focus on social innovation. Mr. Nigel Jacob, co-chair at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Boston (United States) shared his experience of Civil Innovation as an iterative innovation process of “problem”, “hypothesis”, “prototype” and “learn” and summarised his experiences into three points: “Be relevant: work on what matter to people”, “Collaborate deeply: roll up your sleeves and collaborate” and “User experience is everything: building good experiences builds trust”. Ms. Rosemary Addis, founder of Impact Strategist (Australia), underscored the social innovation as a “great umbrella”, and mentioned the tax incentive for affordable housing as a good example of this sort. Mr. Charles Leadbeater from National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts (UK) talked about scaling social innovation and showed some examples, such as “replicating and franchising”, “strawberry strategy” (to influence others in the same sector to adopt this social innovation), “outsource to social enterprise” (the public sector ask social innovators to be in charge of some official services), “insourcing” (the public sector employs social innovators within itself), “catalyst for public systems” (the public sector lets social enterprises to link its different departments), “social complement for public” (the social innovation sector complements what’s lacking in the public sector), “new operating systems for the public sector” (the public sector incorporates social innovations into its own administration) and “public resources create social solutions” (allocation of resources for social innovators). Ms. Penny Low from Social innovation Park (Singapore) pointed out that IT both united and divided people all over the world and questioned people’s demanding attitude to ask the governments to do everything for them, suggesting city halls to give incentives so people start looking for solutions. Then a dialogue was done between Dr. Jane Lee, chair of the SMS organising committee and Ms. Carrie Lam, Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong government. Jane asked the government to be the facilitator of social solutions and Carrie mentioned the public sector’s inertia as well as reject to something onerous like social innovation and highlighted the need to build up the critical mass for bottom-up social innovations.
In the afternoon four concurrent sessions took place simultaneously: “social innovation for business”, “social innovation for academia”, “social innovation for NGOs” and “social innovation for policy-makers”. I attended the NGO session and three speakers presented their experiences. Dr. Benjamin Lai from the Mental Health Association of Hong Kong (in traditional Chinese) showed different social enterprises that it runs with handicapped people as employees, such as cleaning service and many shops, saying that social enterprises can employ the mentally handicapped but other stakeholders’ support is essential. Dr. Tik Chi Yuen from the Evangelical Lutheran Church Social Service told about the closed restaurant which used to be a social enterprise and attributed its failure to people’s dependency on the support from the public sector, underscoring the importance of Public-Private Partnership Programme. Mr. Johnny Tsang from the Baptist OI Kwan Social Service (in traditional Chinese) showed his experience of running a social restaurant where dinner is provided only at HK$10 (US$ 1.30 and € 0.95) for low-income people on weekdays (from Monday to Friday), providing them with the opportunity to talk with other people on top of filling their stomach so they can be socially integrated by way of getting a new job. Then two presentations were done at the Plenary Session as examples of “conscientious capitalism”. Mr. Martin Hill from Fairtrade International explained the general trend of fair trade and the role of their Fair Trade Label, referring to the Fair Trade Hong Kong that has been established recently. Finally Dr. Mairi Mackay from British Council explained the three reasons why her institution is working to promote social enterprises: “need to collaborate to bring about the change we want”, “need to treat more seriously the concept of social capital” and “need to involve everybody”.
The second day began with four parallel policy panels on: “education”, “poverty”, “aging” and “environment”. I went to the poverty session and three speakers shared their experiences. Mr. Chan Hung, founder of the Principal Chan Free Tutorial World (in traditional Chinese), started his presentation by saying that the educational gap is still rampant despite the 12-years universal education system recently introduced in Hong Kong, accentuating the importance to tailor-made education for each student to avoid drop-outs. Volunteer tutors support students improve their learning in English and math and some classes of Cantonese is available for immigrants’ children, mostly from South Asia. More than 2,700 volunteer tutors and 2,500 students have joined this system. Ms. Tina Yim from Urdu Neighbour Centre and Bread Bunch (both in traditional Chinese) showed her experience to run a bakery, integrating South Asian women into Hong Kong society by giving them the job training and employing them. Ms. Dora Cheng from St. James’ Settlement told about her community economic mutual help plan and the development of a time currency scheme which has managed to run an organic farm.
Then four parallel skill-based workshops took place simultaneously: fairtrade, social enterprise as your second carrier, media training for social enterprises and social marketing 2.0. I was at the marketing session where, as always, three speakers gave their presentations. Mr. Kee Chi Hing from Fullness Social Enterprises Society gave an overview of the definition of marketing and social marketing and the trend of ethical consumption, criticising people’s attitude to talk about ethical consumption without practicing it. Ms. Salome Lee from ET Net, Hong Kong’s one of the most important economic newspapers, showed her website and how it contributes to social enterprises’ development. And Dr. Clara Kan, from Fullness Social Enterprises Society, talked about the Ethical Consumption Month.
In the afternoon four concurrent sessions were held simultaneously: “Impact”, “Invite”, “invest” and “Incubate”. I was at the incubate session where three speakers gave their presentations. Mr. Cliff Prior from UnLtd from UK explained his job as a counselling service for social enterprises. Mr. Kelvin Cheung of FoodCycle in UK who will set up UnLtd Hong Kong told his experience to run a social restaurant for the poor. Then Dr. KK Tse, Founding Chair of Hong Kong Social Entrepreneurship Forum, presented the Lean Startup strategy by Eric Ries which is intended “to improve the chances of success for startups worldwide”.
The presence of HSBC as platinum sponsor means a lot to the development of social enterprises in Hong Kong: on the positive side, its abundant financial resources work as a driving force to set up social enterprises and to make them grow. The another side of the same coin, obviously, is the epistemological framework imposed by them to see social enterprises as an element to complement the capitalism without questioning it. At least the Latin American approach of solidarity economy as an alternative to capitalism will be always rejected in this global financial centre, so it would be necessary to set up another platform if we really want to introduce solidarity economy there.
There are two points I found curious at the Cross-Country Dialogue: all speakers were talking about the significance of social innovation but none of them ever tried to define it. This gives social innovators a huge width of free hand to implement whatever they find good, but the lack of definition and the of legal framework means that governments and city halls find it hard on promoting social innovation. This points leads to the second one that, when I asked them what they think about the Social Enterprise Promotion Act, which took effect in 2007 in Korea, none of these speakers showed interest, neither as public servants not as individuals. Perhaps this attitude is related to the ruling pro-British atmosphere at this summit which pays no value to practices out of the Commonwealth of Nations, but I have to admit that this attitude not to respect that Asian experience sounded odd to me.