Last week I attended the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship’s Research Colloquium for the first time. A big thanks goes out to Alex Nicholls for inviting me. As a social innovation thinker empirically rooted in the UK and India, it was fascinating to learn from other scholars from around the world (some of whom were also practitioners).

I could draw out any number of thematic strands but I’m going to go with one that fell through the cracks a little, simply because it is not as developed as others (such as impact measurement, the innovation cycle, or the ‘neophilia’ of social enterprise research). Social capital theory has a chequered history, but it continues to be a “go-to” theory for many trying to make sense of relational inequalities in society, or those trying to understand how financial, physical and human capital can only partially explain how things get done.

When we try to explain why we get discounts from people we know, or why some homeowners don’t lock their doors, there is an instinctive turn to social capital theory. There are many definitions of social capital (of ranging complexities), but I’ll proffer a simple one: the productive benefits of social relations. One of the key benefits of social capital is trust – though it is also one of its core dimensions (hence accusations of circularity).

Where does social capital fit in the social enterprise eco-system? We know that social enterprise depends on the following conditions: patient capital, a knowledge base for the innovation cycle, incubation infrastructure, an established supply chain, a customer base. What we sometimes forget is that these are not abstract concepts, but resources whose access is governed by individuals, organisations, or both. It follows that access to these resources is governed not only by the availability of such resources within eco-systems, but by the opportunity to access those who are the gatekeepers of such resources. It follows that accessing and influencing resource gatekeepers is subject to inequality of opportunity, since social capital stocks vary from individual to individual. And while we like to think we are sufficiently bureaucratised to render such relationships impersonal, we also know that is not the case.

If we are imagining a more egalitarian enterprise culture then public institutions able to join the dots between key stakeholders – beneficiaries, providers, government, investors should be expected to utilise their organisational/collective social capital to “level the playing field” by redressing social (and human/physical) capital disadvantages. The recent trend for universities to adopt the role of strategic anchors in social enterprise eco-systems is relevant here. In some cases (in the UK , US, Australia and Europe) they often themselves possess sufficient resources for small and medium scale social enterprises and can thus be providers rather than just intermediaries. We have already seen how Northampton, supported by the Young Foundation, has set itself up as a social enterprise university. The role of social capital in enabling the performance of such a role should not be underestimated. At Southampton we hope to do similar things through the relational resources we enjoy with our alumni, local government, and social entrepreneurs as we take strides to emulate Northampton’s example.

I recognise that universities are not equal, and that some are endowed with greater resources and capital stocks than others. Some are also possessed of a greater sense of growing social value than others, which explains why universities without significant financial muscle (I’m thinking here not only of Northampton, but Plymouth and Southampton Solent) have been the pioneers in the evolution of the social enterprise university. I’ll also concede that my argument is unashamedly Eurocentric, even if there are universities in the South which have led here (Tata Institute of Social Sciences, for one).No doubt I’m also idealising universities and their commitment to the local. These caveats notwithstanding, I continue to believe that universities have failed to recognise their potential contribution to enterprise eco-systems in general, social or otherwise. Universities are public actors and will remain so despite the global privatisation of higher education.  As such, they remain vital to the process of enabling equality of opportunity, and this is especially the case when we consider the various capital asymmetries that hinder the social enterprise sector.


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