Social Enterprise in 2016 – Ecosystem or Infrastructure? [Guest blog]

Posted in: Blog.

Rachael McCormack reflects on the social enterprise model as she departs Highlands and Islands Enterprises.

What do you think of when you hear the word ecosystem? I’m taken back to Mr Bennett, my rather shy, rather nervous biology teacher who introduced me as a reluctant pupil to this term – and the words I still associate with ecosystem today are interdependence and fragile.

Corporate-land has long adopted this term, with its use peaking in about 2010 – did you know Silicon Valley has an entrepreneurial ecosystem? Doubtless. And in Scotland we have for some time referred to the “ecosystem which supports social enterprise”. But I wonder, as we move into a fast paced 2016 and with the benefit of our Social Enterprise Census 2015 now beside us, should we look again at the components of our ecosystem and take stock; To what extent are these fabulous? To what extent are they fragile? And what’s needing a refresh? Or missing?

When we have celebrated our ecosystem in Scotland, we have been right to do so because so much has been achieved and enabled through our ecosystems component parts:

  • Social investment;
  • Leadership and education;
  • Supportive policy and legislation;
  • Business support;
  • Internationalisation;
  • Opening public sector markets;
  • Awareness raising;
  • Support for entrepreneurs;
  • Networks and social capital

Our Census brought us a phenomenal evidence base describing the combined impact of our nations social entrepreneurs, their Boards, staff teams and the support services and intermediaries they draw on. The Census is now there to formatively assist us as we grow and strengthen further the sector – it’s down to us to put it to good use. Because we now know that there are 5199 social enterprises in Scotland, and over 112,000 people employed in the social economy. We know too that this sector of the economy returns a dividend to Scotland of many millions and that it is a driving force for equality and inclusion.

So, given what we now know – given where we have evidenced we are, and the absolute evidence we can bring to demonstrate the impact of the social economy – to both the economic and social health of Scotland, to what extent should our intent now be shifting from fragile ecosystem, to core, hardwired infrastructure?

Because when you explore what’s beneath many of the tenets of the ecosystem, you might be back with me in my Biology class of ’87; thinking about fragility and a degree of interdependence which brings rather more risk than reassurance. Remove short term “grant” from a few organisations and parts of the ecosystem become shaky. They might fall. Reduce contract terms/contract reach, decide not to renew contracts – or worse still perhaps, roll on with functions or services our sector has outgrown – and bits of the ecosystem disappear. In fact, very few elements of our ecosystem are normalised into the hardwired infrastructure of our national economic and social investment; this is despite social enterprise contributing as a sector, as a job creator, as a social innovator, as an investment multiplier, as a driver for social change — and so very much more.

BBM is the one of the best messaging application for the computer. BBM for PC is becoming a competition for the Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Wechat and Hike application.

Moving into 2016, with the evidence base at hand which we now have, we should perhaps challenge ourselves and each other to consider what a more resilient ecosystem – or hard wired infrastructure as an enabling environment for growth for the social enterprise sector could look like – and in turn, where the sector can reach further to deliver more. Where are the growth and social impact opportunities? Where can we bring social entrepreneurial innovation to bear to greatest effect? What more can be achieved for, and together with our communities? Why limit our ambition….!

So, as we ponder our own new year resolutions, what new year resolution will we make for the social enterprise sector? Ecosystem – or infrastructure?


About Rachael McCormack

Until December 2015, Rachael was Director of Strengthening Communities, where she lead HIE’s work to build community resilience and sustainability across the region. Since joining HIE in 2012, Rachael led a number of important strategic initiatives, including the development of regional policy such as Resilient Rural Communities and Ambitious for Culture. She led HIE’s contribution to shape Scotland’s Community Empowerment Bill and pioneering research into the economic and social value of Gaelic – Scotland’s native language – as an asset. Rachael also overseen HIE’s leadership of two major, community-led, national programmes – the Scottish Land Fund and Community Broadband Scotland – and led HIE’s £10m Creative Futures Partnership with the Glasgow School of Art. Rachael led HIE’s portfolio of over 150 social and community enterprises based within the region – these are organisations looking to grow and develop with support from HIE.



Each quarter CEIS will provide you with an update on recent activity and useful resources. To make sure you don't miss out, sign up below...