August 3, 2009

Social Entrepreneurship: A False Promise?

Here’s an interesting parallel to the struggle to advance a new journalism practice: Energy research.

The status quo of both energy and journalism are recognized worldwide as desperately in need of innovation. Much, in both fields, is said of the power of the entrepreneur in advancing that innovation. Yet support for such innovation remains, it must be said, depressingly out of step with the rhetoric.

Social entrepreneurship is not something that a roll-up-your-sleeves/DIY type can simply set out and undertake, especially at the delicate R&D stage, where a little bit of cash can go a long way.

Lacking personal resources, but rich in ideas, the entrepreneur will, most of the time, get no support from the very establishment that lionizes her or his presumptive role as an innovator.

Today, social entrepreneurship is something that is selectively annointed and supported by status-quo organizations that by definition — by the very fact of their large-scale leadership roles — are unable to apprehend what is truly innovative.

To innovate, one must be able to break from the status quo — its assumptions, its dogma, its rituals and cultural/social expectations. How, then, can an interest vested in that status quo let go of it in order to support innovation?

Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times blog entry on how that plays out in the energy-research field:

… [T]he Department of Energy had to send out letters last week discouraging all but a handful of the 3,500 research teams and individuals seeking some of the $150 million available this year for pursuit of “ transformational” energy technologies.

One such rejection letter is posted above ( a pdf of the letter is here). The name of the rejected scientist is obscured. He sent it to me, he said, not because he was angry about being denied a shot at funding, but because the letter notes that “less than 2 percent” of such proposals are seen as likely to get support. It’s still early days, of course. But does this look like an energy quest to you?