Opening up spaces for negotiation: reflections on the 2012 Social Enterprise Conference

Josie McVitty – AHI’s North Africa Field Associate for the spring of 2012- is in Boston for three weeks before heading off to Algeria and Tunisia. To unwind after a packed workweek, Josie and AHI’s Berly Cordero attended Harvard’s recent Social Enterprise Conference, hosted by the Business and Kennedy Schools on February 25-26. Josie typed up her reflections and thoughts below.


The Social Enterprise Conference (SEC) was a dynamic space to throw around innovative ideas and speak about impact. At its core, though, the discussions served to simply illustrate the real-time growth in recognition of the benefits of exploring the porosity in established structures. Current consensus –at least at SEC- values that porosity while acknowledging it demands more input at the get-go to understand and moderate the terrain.

Unraveling closed systems and ‘tried and true’ ways of doing business creates new spaces. Negotiating these spaces requires new methods and innovative partnerships. This challenge was the rhetoric that resounded above and beyond the conference’s “Innovation, Inclusion, Impact” tagline. Kicking off the conference, Ashoka Founder Bill Drayton called to break down the rigid institutional structures. In education, for example, he argued that adaptive learning is the means to equip children with the human skills that will allow them to contribute to a rapidly changing world. Empathy placed highest in priority in this system of “adisciplinarity”, and is seen as a step beyond a simple intermixing of our typical branches of knowledge.

Perhaps more relevant to AHI’s work, the wall-breaking theme continued to an examination of the distinction between non-profit and for-profit. The difference becomes less significant once social enterprise enters the picture, and the focus for all types of impact-oriented organizations has shifted toward self-sufficiency and sustainability. Investing is no longer a term that pertains to greedy bankers, but to social impact, as the modern take on the profit maximization model.

Breaking down  barriers prompts new arrangements, where the role of individual entities requires redefinition, mediation and compromise with respect to one another. Bringing together networks of multiple stakeholders in hybrid value chains starts a process of negotiation in order to establish the equal partnerships and common purpose. This equality and purpose is required in a network to leverage the critical strengths of each actor for the benefit of the whole. This type of collaborative system can achieve what cannot be achieved by a single actor. It is precisely the process of dispute resolution, cooperation and agreement that gives it its strength.

The power and need for such a network is evident in any successful affordable housing program. Partnerships are a necessary precursor to success. Governments are not generally efficient housing developers. Yet the gap between what people can afford to pay and the cost of housing means that private sector must be convinced to build this type of housing. The government can reduce the cost of building affordable homes by offering land, low-cost financing and other subsidies, making it a more attractive option for the private sector specialized in the area.  In the United States, the benefits of this form of network are found in the LIHTC – Low Income Housing Tax Credits. LIHTC is one of the most robust examples of a  long-term system whereby the private sector is enticed by the public sector to provide a public good, affordable housing.

Technological space is a more recent phenomenon and tool to break through boundaries and negotiate new territory. The role of technology enables a repositioning of the relationship between government, private sector and society. Suddenly, representation takes on a new meaning once your populous have direct access to feedback loops that enables and encourages interaction with government and input into policy.

For example, a more developed model of participation through technology is promoted by Civic Commons, a non-profit described as a ‘dynamic community initiative’ and part of the open government technology movement. A good example can be found in the launch of real-time public transit information available to commuters in New York City.  That city’s Metropoliton Transportation Authority (MTA), has set up an open platform and allowed access to the realtime data so that any number of people or private enterprises can develop apps or services as a means of interface, providing a multitude of products that respond to different user needs. Navigating the organization of this open space where collaborative technology development can occur clearly has huge potential. It provides an efficient means to address public needs and services, along with high mutual benefit for government, technology-savvy intermediaries and society.

Negotiated space – whether it be social, physical, institutional or technological – gives room for interaction and opens the channels for communication, participation and cooperation. The outcome is always more powerful, we can achieve much more together than alone. Although a common phrase, realization of this recognition would lend itself well when reflecting on the future of the organization of our society, especially in a world of increasing multiplicity and pluralities: it’s all about the mixed-, multi-, inter-, and open- that creates these zones of intense activity where exchange and exciting new forms evolve.


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