Reflecting on my practice – the limits of social enterprise

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

One of the most important things I learned from my father is that our economic system does not reward work based on social utility.

I’ve been working around social innovation circles for about ten years now. Repeatedly, I have come across a fervent statement that people working on social good have an unhealthy relationship to money, that we must not demonise money, that we must reconcile profit and purpose.

That discourse has always irked me for its short-sightedness.

Even in a narrow for-profit framework, the question is not just how much return you get on your effort, but risk and time-horizon. When you focus on social good, impact is added to the list. And this is where things get confused.

In a Lunchclub conversation last year, I heard from an architect about the second and third order consequences of the Sydney Opera House. Its construction used a range of new technologies, that were trialled then, and gave birth to new industries. Once built, it served as an icon, prompting tourism, and a sense of civic pride. Such positive externalities are retrospectively visible, if not clearly measurable. They benefit the collective – but cannot be directly listed on the developer’s bottom line.

If impact is truly what matters, then economic returns are ill-suited to measure and guide it. And if impact is not what matters, then pretending is hypocrisy. 

Any discourse on balancing income and social good says: favour the venture that will yield a predictable income in the short-term, over the one that might result in large scale impact. It therefore creates a norm that discourages radical risk-taking intended to benefit the collective.

Not to mention, balancing profit and purpose creates a vested interest in the current paradigm. If you rush to monetise your social impact in the current economy, your long-term interests become tied to the present logic. Or as the Gospel says, where your treasure is, there also your heart is.

Is social enterprise, then, nothing but a desperate attempt at saving capitalism? And by promoting it, are we not distracting driven, ambitious, promising young people from more important work – tying them down to the present system, and preventing them from embracing a more radical approach – one that * could * prove much more impactful?

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #5

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion. [This text was originally written for myself only, and some of the sections therefore referred to personal interactions. I have given myself permission to leave them out – and so jump directly from December 17 to December 19] 

19 December

The need to consume is a strange thing. I spent over 100 yuan today, when I could have spent half that. 10 for a first coffee, 18 for a second, 30 for a third. 16 for a cake-treat. 11 for food. And 18 again for my evening milk tea. Yet these expenses were social. The second coffee – 18 – was to chat with Tristan – and had a positive result: he’s offered to join Marco Polo Project and do work for the Festival. The third coffee – 30 – was fruitful: I chatted to Zhang Jiajia’s assistant, and had in-principle agreement for him to join our festival. The tea was good spending: I watched a movie for cheaper than the cost of my 3G stick at home, and I actually relaxed. I had to pay for food anyway. The cake was the special treat. But hey – I did good and I deserved it

Could I have done things differently? I could have chosen better. I got coffee because I was lazy – I had too much, four cups in total, and might find it difficult to sleep. Intoxicating myself for the sake of ‘my work’, like people drinking at business dinners. Paying for my own intoxication. I remember at Hub when Jules had ‘peppermint’, not ‘coffee to be cool’. And how the café down from Hub closes at 3pm, because you shouldn’t have coffee later than that.

When I go back to Melbourne, I will have to watch my spending again. In the last month and a half – or since I came back from Beijing – I started spending more. ‘Lubrication spending’ I call it Not really counting when I have coffee. Eating out. Inviting people. Cinema. Books. Trips. I should slowly start cutting down on some of those things after the new year – to get back into the habit when I reach Melbourne. But then again – I’m in China, I’m learning, and networking, and running three projects – and I’m trying to cope.

Strange though, how ‘trying to cope’ – or finding balance – goes through spending.