In tough economic times, it makes sense to see the social enterprise sector expand to provide more added-value services in the community. The problem is that too often there seem to be few models of effective social enterprises. It sounds like a good idea, but maybe doesn't always deliver to the aspirations.
I have been wondering whether this is due to something inherently wrong with the social enterprise paradigm - or just that we're not attracting good entrepreneurs with enough good ideas into the public sector. Of course, there are some projects seeking to equip up-and-coming entrepreneurs, ranging from the School for Social Entrepreneurs through to the MBA courses at Oxford's Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.
The challenge is seeing these bright sparks begin to have an impact on service delivery. It seems to be starting to happen - for example with NHS Birmingham East and North's new Social Entrepreneur in Residence, Eleanor Cappell. Whilst this example of embedding an entrepreneur deep within the delivery system of an NHS institution is welcome, it seems unusual. I could be wrong, but I don't recall hearing about many Social Entrepreneurs in Residence. Most social entrepreneurs, I suspect, struggle to fight against the system, which wants to stamp out any signs of creativity and experimentation.
Conventional wisdom suggests that GPs prescribe pills, but why not vegetables?
In the last few weeks, though, I have begun to think that maybe the issue is not the lack of training and skills. Maybe the problem is simply the lack of good ideas.
The other week I heard about an African inventor. He saw there was an issue with incubators at his local hospital. The issue was that each incubator cost £40,000 and had about a five year lifespan before it broke and could not be repaired. This guy, and I'm sorry I didn't catch his name, invented an incubator himself. But it wasn't just any incubator. It was made from readily available car parts and cost less than £1000 in parts. And if it broke down, the hospital just called the car mechanic.
What I find inspiring about that story is that this guy went beyond the message everyone had been telling him – that medical equipment needs to be produced by the experts - and used the skills he already had to find a better solution.
I wonder how many other thoughts there are which have not been thought (as it were) because we are stuck thinking in a certain way, how many skills we already have and things we already know that could be useful.
Yesterday I was listening to a podcast of an American radio show I enjoy every week called the World Vision Report. The section was about a project in New York City which set up a group of small entrepreneurs as greengrocers, working off carts in parts of cities where residents had little access to good quality food.
My immediate thought was that it was a good idea, but that it would never work here because the traders would have their money stolen. Then I thought that maybe there could be punch-cards that allow multiple journeys on some buses. And then I thought that maybe these could be sold at the local facilities that do exist, like the Post Office and the chemist.
Then I thought - why not get GPs to prescribe vegetables to those they thought needed an extra boost? Conventional wisdom suggests that GPs prescribe pills, but why not vegetables? What is the worst that could happen?
Joe Turner FRSA is a blogger, activist and writer.