Civic Innovation and Social Enterprise: how they’re linked and why they matter

09/04/2015 | By

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Just under one month to go until StartupWeekend Civic! Over at Idea Foundry we’re always excited to meet new ideas and the people behind them. So when we heard that Startup Weekend Pittsburgh was holding a special edition focused solely on Civic Innovation, we got psyched!

Why are we so thrilled to be part of Startup Weekend Civic? Here at Idea Foundry through our Social Enterprise sector, we have an explicit focus on supporting businesses innovating to benefit the common good, for people, planet, and profit. We’re energized seeing so many Pittsburghers who are passionate about solving the big, systemic problems that real people in our region face. Because for us, that is what social enterprise is all about.

So what is civic innovation to us? How is it linked to social enterprise, and why is that link significant?

To us, civic innovation means enabling citizens to examine the core public sector issues we all experience everyday. It could be a lack of convenient public transportation that moves us quickly from home to job or school and back; rising rates of obesity and other life-style related illnesses; or the non-level playing field that exists for free access to information and knowledge resources: Civic Innovation is coming up with disruptive, game-changing solutions to those problems. This could mean developing more expansive and effective public transportation systems that include mass transit as well as bike and ride share infrastructure; creating new land use policies that lead to more green space where people can relax, work, and play; or introducing technology that promotes universal public wifi, which could lead to more engaged, empowered citizens.  

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Meanwhile, social enterprise as we define it at Idea Foundry is a completely new business model that drives social change and supports a healthy planet and healthy communities while generating profit and financial sustainability. These for-profit enterprises are developing and applying innovative, disruptive solutions that address huge social or environmental problems while creating profit and scalable economic opportunity. Whether addressing poor air or water quality, low access to fresh, healthy foods, or our ability to develop sustainable and renewable fuels, our social entrepreneurs are reinventing the principles of for-profit business to solve and prevent environmental and social problems in market-driven ways, while adding economic value to all involved stakeholders.

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As a society, our ability to address these huge, systemic social and environmental challenges matters, because these issues affect the way we live with one another, interact with the environment around us, as well as our overall quality of life. A healthy, functioning city cares for people and empowers them to make changes. This can make everyone happier, healthier, and more prosperous as a whole. An unhealthy civic environment benefits only a small percentage disproportionately at the expense of many, creates unequal opportunity and wellbeing only for the few, and brings us all down as a result. This leads to a split society, and leaves people powerless to make meaningful changes.

The relative strength or weakness of our civic structure also affects much more than our individual livelihoods, it impacts the big picture. It affects the way we perform as a holistic society, and measures our relative strength and resilience as a city, region, individual community, or neighborhood. It determines our collective wellbeing, our global competiveness as an equitable, livable city, as well as our ability to attract new people to the region who can help propel our ever-evolving city forward.

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For us at Idea Foundry, this links to the work we do to support for-profit social entrepreneurs, because social enterprise is all about making life better for the people who really need it. It’s about dreaming up scalable, impactful, and market-based solutions to the world’s biggest problems. It’s about opening up new markets by delivering products and services to people who have been left behind and introducing solutions where they’ve never been available. It’s tackling problems that don’t seem to have answers, at least ones that are adequate, and asking, how can I approach this differently, in a new and meaningful way? How can I create a business that is responsible and responsive to all stakeholders, from employees and shareholders, to suppliers, customers, and the natural environment, in a way that is financially viable and economically sustainable?

In our 13-year history, Idea Foundry has been dedicated to helping entrepreneurs solve problems that matter. From life-saving medical devices, to ground-breaking classroom technologies; from devices that protect and improve our environment, to commercializable advances in energy efficiency and renewables: we’re focused on helping entrepreneurs bring their innovative solutions to market.

InterSector, Idea Foundry’s social enterprise accelerator, funds and guides the creation of early stage social enterprise companies that develop scalable, efficient, and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems. Our companies are using big data to help law enforcement officers combat human trafficking; developing technologies to enable the blind and sight-impaired live better, more independent lives; turning trash into dignified jobs and products people love; engineering systems that run on biofuels and other renewable energy sources; promoting health and wellness for Pittsburghers; and designing software solutions to increase government efficiency and increase budgets while saving taxpayers money.

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We are helping to generate the next wave of triple bottom line companies creating sustainable economic opportunity in Western Pennsylvania and measurable social change locally and globally, by helping social entrepreneurs evaluate market opportunities and assess their ability to innovate in the marketplace. We do this because we believe business for good is the future.

By providing support to entrepreneurs who have big ideas to change the world through business, we’re helping solve those critical social and environmental challenges that will define our success for the generations that come after us. And we know that as civic innovators, that is your goal too.

If you think you have a great solution to increase the common good, we can’t wait to see what you come up with in this year’s Startup Weekend Civic Pittsburgh, and to support you through the process after the weekend is over.  Sign up today. We wish you the best of luck, and happy innovating!

By Nicole Muise-Kielkucki

Director, Social Enterprise

Idea Foundry