This is water: empathy is everything

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I wrote recently about my experiments with amphibious leadership and of the centrality of soft skills (or soft power) in the repetoire of the amphibious leader. These skills are often ignored by mainstream higher education on the assumption that they are acquired through experience, need little attention, and are best inculcated by other institutions and actors in the development of young adults.

This means that universities have focussed instead on what they think they do best: promoting disciplinary knowledge and associated academic skills, Placements and problem-solving challenges are understood as desirable but “non-core” activities outside the scope of a university’s remit.

The tide is turning. In the UK, teaching and learning activities are integrating group work, presentations live competitions in the curriculum. In India, many engineering universities (mainly private), are insisting that all undergraduates take up to 15% of their undergraduate modules in social sciences and humanities to address their chronic deficit in these soft skills and to improve their communication.

This is commendable (and arguably long overdue), but there is a flaw in the reasoning that equates subject-based knowledge with methodology. The social sciences can be taught in as conservative ways as engineering or maths; it is the degree of interaction and self-reflexivity which sets apart empowering from restrictive pedagogies.

Integral to the school of amphibious leadership I am promoting is empathy: the critical faculty to decentre ourselves in favour of the perspectives of others. In business, this might be the perspective of customers.  In our families, it might be that of our parents or children. Empathetic people make better parents, friends, business people, doctors and teachers.  Empathetic people make more well-adjusted and content human beings. 

Empathy lies at the core at what the writer David Foster Wallace so eloquently described as the real value of education – the freedom to choose what to think, and how to think about other people, to see as individuals with unique struggles rather than obstacles in our path. It is a skill atrophied by the struggle of everyday life, and the narcissism bred through social media and compounded by the heady rush of consumerism. It’s how we are hard-wired. There’s always a temptation to moralise empathy as a virtue, but in reality it has nothing to do with morality: it is a critical tool to live, work and act effectively by inhabiting another’s world-view in order to negotiate successful outcomes for everyone concerned. When we only see a situation through our own eyes, we only ever see human interaction as a debilitating zero-sum game.

That’s why it is incumbent on universities, as institutions of higher education, to help their students to understand themselves as designers of human experience and as human-centred problem solvers over and above their disciplinary identities as engineers, sociologists or management scientists.

This won’t happen simply by increasing their exposure to different subjects. To nurture future empathetic generations -and therefore effective, content human beings – we have to offer them situations where they are confronted with challenges which place them firmly outside their comfort zone, where they are outsiders and have to rapidly adjust to unfamiliar realities. Universities aren’t used to doing that (and neither are they equipped to do so) but if we are to move beyond higher education to human development, it is an evolution the sector at large has to embrace.

Economy or society? It’s a nice choice to have

The placard above was photographed at a demonstration in London last week and quickly went viral as a pithy rejoinder to neo-liberal economic policies and the gradual erosion of the social around the world.

A student on our UK-India programme  pointed out that the distinction between the economic and the social is grounded in scales of analysis; that while people commonly think of nations in economic terms, on a micro-level, in the naked moment of human interaction, we see each other as social, human beings. It takes a cold, calculating person to look on people they pass in the street (or friends, colleagues or family) and see them as economic assets (or liabilities!)

I had an experience in Ahmedabad which, in my eyes, complicated both the student’s understanding of the issue and the aspiration at large.

Although I am of course devilishly handsome and effortlessly charming, I am ever so slightly vertically challenged. This often means that I need to get trousers shortened because the average British man’s legs are freakishly long. In the UK this can often mean I pay as much for alterations as I do for the trousers themselves, such is the cost of labour. In India, this is a different story and so I bring newly bought trousers here to be altered. Outside the IIM-A campus I found a small, poorly lit and slightly dingy tailor shop. As with most such shops, there were three staff, all older men at various stages of decrepitude, with one hunched over a dated sewing machine and the other two sat on chairs  and looking blankly out in the street.

I explained to the one active tailor that I wanted each pair of trousers shortened by 3 inches, and he took one away to show me what that would look like before we agreed on a length for them all. He cut and stitched with surprising speed and within 3 minutes showed it to me. I agreed this was and fine and I asked him how much a batch job would cost.

At this point he puffed out his cheeks and fixed with me a gaze, as though he was about to break bad news. In Gujarati he told he it was going to be expensive but we would do a first rate job, and that’s why it would more than he might ordinarily charge. I had no idea how much it might cost – in the UK, it would set me back around £15 per pair of trousers, but I’ve had trousers altered in Bombay for Rs 500, so I was expecting something like Rs1000 for the six trousers. Almost apologetically, he said it would cost me Rs 150. I thought I had misheard, so I asked him again. He took this to mean I thought it was exorbitant, and again made the point that the work would be impeccable.

There may well be a case, as friends pointed out, that I was being overcharged here. That might be true. But to me, the value of the work being done was far in excess of Rs 150. I would have gladly party with 10 times that amount, and given the tailor’s experience and skill level (which I had witnessed) I felt massive guilt in what I considered to be an underpayment. If this was a purely economic transaction this would arguably be a win-win situation: the price of the work was lower than I expected but higher than the tailor would usually charge.

If I saw this as a social interaction, however, is it morally incumbent on me to pay what I feel the work is worth, following the imperatives of the giving economy? If I were to do so, however, would this be perceived as a condescending “pity payment”?  Moreover, would it distort his own understanding of his pricing and market value?

I, in a position of affluence and therefore privilege, have the liberty to render this economic transaction as a social negotiation and suffer no ill-effects. On the contrary, I might feel myself more fully human through this act of largesse. The tailor, by contrast, has no such liberty: for him he can only ever be the beneficiary of my socialized choices, and might even have his humanity diminished as I strive to redeem my own.

In an ideal world it would be easy to substitute economic for social reasoning. In the world we live in, it is fraught with consequences beyond our understanding, especially for those at the receiving end of our idealism. We’d all choose to live in an economy rather than a society, but, as with so many things, this is a choice that is easier for the rich than for the poor.










The amphibious leader: taking some first steps

The first Spark India workshop

The first Spark India workshop: getting to know each other by telling lies…



After what feels like a year of slog and resistance, the social enterprise camp I’ve been planning has finally come to fruition, with 10 students from the University of Southampton and 10 students from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad paired on a series of business challenges set by 3 innovative social businesses. These challenges are designed not only to help students from both institutions to get a feel for social business in India, but to use these to engage these in debates about the conceptual legitimacy of social business and to challenge sharp distinctions between the “social” and business, especially but not exclusively in developing economies.

This is a highly experimental ( a grave risk of looking foolish prevents me from calling it anything grander) project designed to start students on the journey to becoming what Pamela Hartigan has called “amphibious leadership”. The key dimensions of this form of leadership are a dextrous command of soft power, comfort in multiple geographies and an ability to speak across lines of practical expertise.This is itself based on the idea that leadership is an observable set of practices and not a divine gift or personality trait, and this is clearly a position that is supported by a slew of evidence.

I’d say we need leaders like this not only in the private sector but in the public and third sector, especially as distinctions between all three are increasingly blurred.

As Hartigan acknowledges, universities, business schools and higher education in general is playing catch up to the shifting plates of the global economy and society.  There are questions of organisational agility  which I’ve written about here)  and a widespread inability  (and quite possibly reluctance) to retool rapidly or comprehensively enough to offer young people the kind of human development opportunities they need to thrive in the contemporary world.

Hartigan talks specifically about graduates as employees and entrepreneurs but I’d argue there is a wider debate that needs to be had about the dangers of disconnecting work-related skills and abilities from generally human skills and abilities.  Some of the elements of soft power she discusses  could (and should be) be extended to cultivate empathetic and mindful approaches to human life in the broadest sense, and which are applicable not only to work related outcomes. The New Economics Foundation’s recent research into the potentially radical benefits of making economics  speak to ideas of empathy are indicative of a recognition that attributes that were once understood as private, individual (and perhaps even moral) have a important public value which can be extrapolated to the collective macro-level. Similarly, emerging ideas about the impact of private fulfilment on economic productivity challenge dichotomous thinking about the mandate of higher education.

Of course the camp we’re running right now is nothing but an experiment to see what this might look like on a microscopic scale. There’s also no guarantee that the outcomes I’m expecting will be the outcomes which result, but it’s a start.

Further updates and incoherent musings to follow!


No idealism please, we’re academics

I realise now what’s been irking me about current research on social entrepreneurship. There’s a lot of it, but I haven’t read anything that’s vaguely idealistic.

Technical scuffles about the definition of social entrepreneurship wholly miss the point about the concept; they have some token value in academia’s echo chamber, but they don’t come close to discussing what matters: values and ideals.

Social entrepreneurship is whatever you want it to be. For neo-liberals it is a way of responsibilising citizens to self-organise their welfare needs in the absence of a retreating state. For those on the centre-left (of which I count myself) it is about identifying solutions which the private, orthodox third and public sectors have failed to, for a range of institutional and sector-specific reasons. It is not a question of replacing the state and universal provision in health, education and welfare, but combining the best of third sector heart, private sector head, and public sector mission to solve specific problems for specific groups. It’s about human-centred problem solving grounded in collaboration as much as competition, with an emphasis on sustainable rather than immediate impact.  It’s about trailblazing a new mode of business practice which understands that financial value creation doesn’t necessarily have to come at the expense of social and environmental value.

There’s no elegant way to compress that into a discourse-defining statement, and I would resist it anyway. What it is, though, is an attempt to elevate social entrepreneurship research above the drudgery of techno-legal skirmishes over definition. Instead of a futile attempt to understand the what of social entrepreneurship, why don’t we spend a little more time exploring the why?

Social entrepreneurship: a process, or a practice?

If one more person asks me what social entrepreneurship  is I’m going to print a series of vests I can wear under my clothes emblazoned with the words “don’t ask me, I’m only an academic”.

It’s not only that I’m sick of being asked for a definition (which is always expected to be pithy and authoritative, as though I was being asked for the chemical symbol for copper). It’s also that I firmly believe it refers to a spectrum of practice which can only be properly understood through example.

Unsurprisingly, there is now a burgeoning sub-set of academic research dedicated to investigating exactly why social  social entrepreneurship is such a slippery concept. The general gist of this research concludes that despite  its essentially contested and ambigious nature, and despite the fact that social entrepreneurship is really a conglomeration of asymmetric  and incompatible terms, social entrepreneurship is coherent enough to constitute a valid area of research. Hoorah!

What’s that? You think such research is self-indulgent academic navel-gazing? How rude.

Now I don’t like dismissing other people’s work (actually I very much do like doing that, but let’s suspend disbelief for a moment) , but I think such questions (and answers) aren’t hugely helpful to the sector as a whole – even its academic dimensions.

I would like to propose that a more edifying and illuminating avenue of research would explore the nature of social entrepreneurship itself.  The academic literature to date has largely sought to define social entrepreneurship as a process – a means of achieving sustainable social change. The frameworks deployed to explicate social entrepreneurship have therefore focussed on the various components of social entrepreneurship:  individuals (understood through psycho-social approaches)  innovations (depersonalised and detached from individuals) or investments (very management science orientated).

Organisations, by comparison, have been relatively under-researched. This is despite a rich tradition of organisational studies (straddling sociology and anthropology) in the third sector. We don’t know very much about how socially entreprenuerial organisations behave, beyond the often destructive obsessive control of founding entrepreneurs. Neither do we know how such organisations understand themselves, particularly in regards to their distinction from mainstream business organisations or charities. Research has been heavily weighted towards the motivations and behaviours of founding individuals with a blind spot towards the organisations spawned from these moments of creation. Questions of how social entrepreneurship is practiced, both on an everyday, molecular level and in response to operational challenges (“failure”, competition, growth) are perhaps more urgent that abstract conceptual wrangling, but remain under-explored. There are related questions of how organisational behaviour itself shapes the discourse of social entrepreneurship, and whether it is such behaviour (as much as outcomes) which defines what the field is and how it is positioned vis-a-vis other entities in the social and mainstream economy.

One of the obvious reasons is that such research is hard to conduct; access, ethics and the like come into play and are potential deterrants. So is the time investment – empirical research of this nature demands long term commitment to the field. Nonetheless, if academic research into social entrepreneurship is to evolve beyond a preoccupation with process to a consideration of practice, this is one of the roads it will have to go down.


Seek first to understand, then create – lessons in mindful learning

It’s difficult to ask committed, enthusiastic people to stop moving forward. No-one likes to interrupt momentum.  Sometimes, however, that’s just what learning facilitators ( not lecturers!)  have to do.

We’re now 4 weeks into our Social Enterprise module and the course is fairly tight in terms of milestones and progressions. One of the most frustrating constraints of leading courses in disruptive innovation is working within the rigidities of a university system that dictates a set number of weeks per module, and a set number of learning hours per week. In an ideal world I’d run the course over a year.

Such constraints are frustrating but also demanding; it requires discipline and a commitment to the human-centred problem solving paradigm courses like ours are founded on. We have seven exciting, potentially high impact projects taking off at the moment but a few teams have tried to short-circuit the process of understanding human need in the first place, and have impatiently moved on to designing solutions (and even attempting to cost those solutions). This is perfectly understandable when you remember that university students are conditioned to foreground assessment based on the assumption that learning happens in the background of the assessment process.

Promoting “mindful” learning where every task requires immersive focus and reflexive self-discovery is the goal of entrepreneurial learning experiences, but these go against grain of higher education as it is currently designed.   Facilitators in entrepreneurial courses need to remain vigilant of the tendency to rush towards the finish line and the courage to ask people to slow down, return to the human focus of their endeavour, and reflect.  They can only really do that when they themselves remember that it is the development of the individual rather than the enterprise that matters . I could ramble on about the time horizons of learning outcomes, but I’ll spare you that!

countdown to my first Social Enterprise university module




There are less than 16 hours until my Social Enterprise module kicks off for the first time at the University of Southampton. It’s fair to say I’m more than a little nervous! I’ve been teaching for more than 7 years now and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Feedback tells me that I’m not half bad either. This module is a different proposition, however. It’s intended to be an experiential introduction to social entrepreneurship and so while set the overall parameters and pace  of learning activity, I’m ceding a lot of control to my students. This in turn places considerable emphasis on their motivation, organisation and initiative. 

The animating ethos of the module is human-centred design, diversity in innovation, visual thinking and fast failure. I’m trying to bring the latest thinking in social design to bear on the pedagogic techniques we use to progress our students through the various stages of the design process, so if you have recommendations and suggestions they would be gratefully received. I’m looking forward to growing a crowd-sourced curriculum!

I’ve asked my students to keep a blog of their experiences as they progress through the module ( an exercise in personal branding)  so it’s only fair that I do the same. Stay tuned for my reflections over the course of the next 12 weeks. 




How to get things done in India: what I think I’ve learnt

A few weeks ago I boldly announced that I was launching a social enterprise camp in India and even more boldly, that I would get it off the ground in two weeks. Well, two weeks grew into three weeks but I can say with more than a little confidence that I did indeed make some decent headway and that the camp will have its pilot run in July 2014. We have two great institutional partners in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and SNDT Women’s University, as well as the backing of the British Council and the Science & Innovation Network of the British High Commission. We’ve even managed to appoint a couple of wise heads to our advisory board, and I’m in the process of hiring a project manager.

It’s easy to join the dots looking backwards, as someone once said, but I think I’ve learnt the following things about getting things done in India. I make no claims about the originality of these insights, by the way.

1) Pick up a phone. Better yet, turn up. 

This is pretty good advice for getting things done anywhere. Email has its purpose, but is almost useless in getting people’s attention. Emails get deleted, neglected or skimmed over. It’s hard to persuade someone over email. I know lots of people who think it’s not proper to call someone they don’t know well. Get over it. Unfortunately phone calls are only good for getting a foot in the door. Everything else needs you to be there. Yes, the hefty carbon footprint is unfortunate, but if you want to get things done in India, you have to go to India. 

2) Persist, persist, persist

Most of my trips to India have a similar trajectory. At first it feels like nothing is happening and there’s always a point when I’m close to packing up.  I never do. Keep knocking on the door. Eventually it will open. The key is persistence but also resourcefulness: if one contact doesn’t yield result,  consider who else in your network could help out. I think of each trip as comprised of incremental stages; it is only towards the end that things start to come together.

3) Don’t queue.

 Anyone who’s been in an Indian shop will know what I mean by this. There is no such thing as a queue; there’s no such thing as being at the front of it.  Someone will emerge on your side and demand to be served. Getting things in India demands that you do the same. You have no claims on the person you’re seeking to work with. Their attention can be taken by anyone, at any time. This can be distracting – and dispiriting -but it also means the opposite is true: you can take anyone’s attention at any time. Don’t wait for permission to contact someone, and don’t wait your turn. Your turn is whenever you need it to be. 

4) Follow-up is essential.

Out of sight, out of mind. If your project is based on establishing a relationship with an Indian partner, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ve reached a baseline which can’t be reversed. On the contrary, it takes constant follow-up to maintain such relationships. Think of it like a plant that needs constant watering. If you’re willing to put in the effort of going into partnership with an Indian institution or company, you might as well protect your investment by nurturing the relationship over time. Emails and phone calls can do a decent job but, once again, you really need to be physically present if you don’t want things to slide.  


Launching a social enterprise camp: a two (or possibly three week) experiment in getting things done in India

I can hear you laughing already. You’re trying to launch a project in India in two weeks?

Good luck with that! Actually it’s a project that’s been in the pipeline for a few months now, but it’s all systems go for a pilot run in April next year.

Our idea is simple: provide university students with a different kind of international experience. Not one where they spend six weeks backpacking or stuck in classrooms, but project-building in international teams.  Our vision is for an immersive three week experience where British students coming to India to undertake either a social business or innovation challenge. The business challenge will be to collaborative with local students to solve a specific business problem faced by a local social enterprise.

The innovation challenge will involve adapting an existing social innovation or technology (devised and owned by the University of Southampton) to India, and we have our preliminary sights on tackling a commercialized toilet made of recycled material as our first challenge. The hope is that these challenges will yield spin-out social enterprises or strengthen existing ones, so the camps will not be an ephemeral experience but a learning process with an identifiable legacy.

The camp is partly motivated by a desire to find social purposes for technology which is too often neglected because it won’t generate the multi-million pound spin-out that some will, but it is also driven by a desire to add value to existing social enterprises which often struggle for a fresh perspective. We want to unleash the creativity, empathy and lateral thought of our students; attributes which higher education as a whole has not prized, but which the world desperately needs.

The days when universities judged the value they add to students’ lives through the lens of disciplinary knowledge are vanishing fast. My hope is that through this camp we are sowing the seeds of a distinctive graduate experience which is characterised by human-centred problem solving rather than analysis in a vacuum.

I’ll keep you updated on my progress over the next few weeks. Wish me luck!


Two rising stars of the Indian social enterprise scene

This was originally published as “Social enterprise in India makes steady progress” in The Guardian, January 9th 2013.


Over the past decade the social enterprise ecosystem in India has grown steadily, almost in parallel to ours in Britain. Like ours, the evolution of the ecosystem has been uneven, with a surfeit of subsidised capital for early stage start-ups, a splattering of incubation hubs and a small but expanding number of universities that have sought to embed social enterprise in teaching, research, and enterprise activities (or all three).

If London is the UK’s social enterprise capital, then Mumbai is India’s. The city’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) launched India’s first masters programme in social entrepreneurship in 2007. Last year, it reached an agreement with the Development Bank of Singapore to fund an incubator and provide continuing financial support to its graduates. In a region where incubation for social purpose ventures has expanded over the past 10 years, but where social entrepreneurship has struggled to find legitimate recognition as a field of academic study, this unique combination of the two has served to make social enterprise a viable career choice for young graduates.

Unltd India – which celebrated its fifth birthday in 2012 – has been providing seed funding and business support in much the same ways as its UK counterpart has done. Until last year, it also provided a vital physical hub in the city for social entrepreneurs. Much more than a co-working space, the hub (now called Bombay Connect) is an oasis of calm, conviviality and creativity in a city that pulses to a manically financialised beat.

Two of the fourth batch of graduates from the TISS masters have gone on to found successful start-ups. Ketan Parmar has launched Krishi Naturals, an organic farming business that works with farming co-operatives in the western state of Gujarat. Despite being heralded as India’s most technologically advanced state (its prime minister Narendra Modi appeared as a hologram in remote villages during recent state elections), rural Gujarat is agriculturally dependent, and the state is India’s largest dairy producer.

In the context of an epidemic of farmer suicide – claiming one life every 12 hours – Krishi Naturals’ mission goes beyond environmental do-gooding. Krishi Naturals has two related objectives: to provide a sustainable livelihood for farmers and to popularise organic farming. To meet its objectives, Parmar and his team have been engaged in advancing the development of farming co-operatives, on the one hand, and consumer groups, on the other.

Krishi Naturals’ support for farmers involves disseminating advice on best practice for organic farming methods and providing technical support. Organic farming is widely perceived as far less productive than chemical methods, so persuading farmers that organic methods can maintain crop yield and offer access to new markets is a major challenge for Krishi Naturals.

On the demand side, the company is working with housing societies (co-operatives) in the city of Baroda to provide weekly baskets of fresh organic produce. This distribution model, based on seasonal subscriptions, provides farmers with a stable, predictable income and ensures that only crops that can be guaranteed to be sold will be grown, reducing food wastage. These advanced subscriptions also provide much-needed working capital. Krishi Naturals has recently partnered with Jatan, an organisation that raises awareness about organic farming and produce among farmers and consumers.

Parmar believes that the organic food market in India is still in its infancy but that, “domestic markets must be developed by spreading awareness about organic food. As most of the organic food produced in India is being exported, our carbon foot print in transporting this stuff is very high which ultimately affects the environment”.

Sampurn(e)arth, another TISS start-up and Unltd India investee, is in the business of end-to-waste management. Like Krishi Naturals, it seeks to create multiple forms of value and impact. Mumbai is home to Asia’s second largest dumping ground, producing a staggering 10,000 tonnes of waste every day. Waste pickers scavenge these dumping grounds from morning to night, separating the useful from the useless.

Sampurn(e)arth operates on the principle that the mass transportation of waste to these mega dumping grounds is not only hugely inefficient and expensive but also environmentally costly and responsible for perpetuating undignifying scavenging work. Its solution is to promote the segregation of waste at source and the overall decentralisation of waste management. It does this by separating dry from wet waste at sites that handle sizeable quantities – universities, corporate offices or hospitals. Where the wet waste crosses a quantity threshold, Sampurn(e)arth installs and maintains a biogas plant that transforms the waste into cooking gas and organic fertiliser. The dry waste is segregated at source and sent for recycling.

This elegant decentralisation of waste management is valuable in and of itself. But Sampurn(e)arth’s innovative twist lies in its partnership withStree Mukti Sanganatha (Women’s Liberation Organisation), which has given rise to a federation of female waste pickers. Sampurn(e)arth and Stree Mukti Sanganatha train members of the federation to separate dry waste properly and to manage biogas plants and composting units. Besides providing members with much-needed transferable technical skills, firms also offer a living wage, social insurance, decent working conditions and perhaps above all, a dignified livelihood. Members of the waste pickers’ federation glow as they speak of an ability to take pride in their work, to hold their heads high and to impress on their children the realisation of long cherished dreams of social mobility. Co-founder Debartha Banerjee describes these female waste pickers as “invisible environmentalists”.

These high-impact, innovative solutions to market and government failures are symbols of a mounting impatience at the persistence of poverty in spite of steady, consistent growth over the past 30 years. In unequal countries such as India, where the windfall of economic gains has accrued to relatively few, social enterprise promises to empower those groups who have found themselves bypassed by globalisation’s gold rush. In social enterprise circles we pay a lot of lip service to the triple bottom line, but very few organisations walk the walk like these two. The challenges lies in providing the right mix of financial, legal, moral and intellectual support for this all-important generation of change makers. Organisations such as TISS and Unltd India are at the forefront of meeting this challenge.

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