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Europe needs a new breed of entrepreneur. Not just tech entrepreneurs who freeride on our personal data before becoming philanthropists. But civic entrepreneurs who dare to empower society without impoverishing it through their innovative ventures. But who is a civic entrepreneur? She’s someone who dares to be entrepreneurial in the part of society that most needs it: our communities. Where people see gridlock and problems, civic entrepreneurs see opportunity and mobilize their communities on a forward path. Their recipe is to forge powerfully productive linkages at the intersection of business, government, education, and community, thus helping to generate new innovative civic institutions, practices and social norms. By operating at the grassroots level, they create collaborative advantages that empower their communities to compete on the world stage.
The question therefore is: how do we empower our civic entrepreneurs?
The nationalist/populist challenge in recent years has raised questions over the sustainability of globalisation. It has demonstrated that Europe’s existing civic institutions are exclusionary and fail to harness the true potential of the communities in which they operate. The result: a growing feeling of powerlessness among citizens. So, a new relationship between politics, people and societies, designed to furnish citizens with the tools for their civic and economic empowerment, must be invented. And, while still early, there are some promising signs.
Europe is witnessing the emergence of new forms of citizen activism and entrepreneurialism. Founded less than a year ago, Pulse of Europe organises meetings of pro-Europeans across the EU, bringing citizens to the streets in support of a united Europe and in defiance of populism. WeMove mobilizes 1 million Europeans on transnational causes, ranging from whistle-blower protection to the safeguarding of Europe’s forests. The Good Lobby is the world’s first advocacy skill-sharing community, connecting professionals with civil society organisations to give the latter a louder voice and training a new generation of citizen lobbyists. The 1989 Generation Initiative, with eight branches across Europe, uses a mix of crowdsourcing, citizen dialogues, and data analysis to produce policy proposals for the consideration of key EU decision makers. The Guerrilla Foundation helps activists and grassroots movements build pockets of resistance, through a participatory model of philanthropic giving. These are but few examples.
Many more exist.
The efforts of these organisations are admirable, their impact burgeoning, but their collective – pan-European – influence still small. More widespread social innovation, fuelled by Europe’s civic entrepreneurs, will occur only if conditions exist for their mobilisation. We present some ideas on how to empower our civic entrepreneurs, through five concrete initiatives.
- Connect the dots to attain a critical mass: Despite their limited visibility, there exist hundreds of initiatives across Europe that offer innovative, low-cost solutions to challenges faced by society and its public authorities. Some of them are grassroots associations, others are social enterprises, sometimes do-thanks and emerging transnational political movements, such as DIEM. Unfortunately, these groups typically work across epistemic communities, don’t know each other, and lack opportunities to meet and exchange. To solve this conundrum, public authorities, civil society and businesses must create an enabling environment for mutual exchange. An EU Civic Innovation Fund, topped up by the private sector, can be geared towards fostering these linkages. Rather than being administered at EU level, it should follow a decentralized model closer to potential beneficiaries. This would support both transnational and local civic entrepreneurial projects which demonstrate the ability to bridge communities, and promote a fresh vision of a connected European society.
- Grow civic entrepreneurs: Being a civic entrepreneur requires training. Yet virtually no university or other institution offers dedicated academic instruction. What about an MCE – Master’s in Civic Entrepreneurship? Or better still, how about mainstreaming civic entrepreneurship into the school curriculum? More critically, how to shift away from a traditional disciplinary offering to a skills-based, hands-on education capable of streamlining civic skills across subjects? Erasmus was a pioneering programme in the mid-1980s. Today it must be substantially broadened, going beyond the student-exchange mode and be transformed – in line with President Macron’s recent proposal – so as to entail a required six-month stay abroad for students (not only in higher education but also in vocational trainings) and professionals. As such, it should include a core-competence component so as to improve EU literacy, foster civic entrepreneurship and include digital education.
- Empower the local community: Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, has plagued the EU economy and society since the 2008-9 great recession. Meanwhile, as large metropolises increasingly dominate western economies, our small communities have become isolated and less productive, whilst providing less space for the emergence of start-ups, or the growth of SMEs. EU Growth and Innovation hubs should be set up across the Europe’s regions to combat this. These would involve partnerships between municipal/regional units, private enterprises, universities and civil society. They would allow a space for these cross-sectoral groups to determine and deliver community priorities together. By pooling financial, technical, and human resources, these hubs will be able to coordinate larger more innovative start-up projects than would otherwise be possible, creating more jobs and attracting outside talent. The EU Cohesion Policy might be re-organised around these hubs, directing towards them a substantial portion of funds per budget. The Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in the UK provide a useful template.
- Get academics’ hands dirty: While academics have been withdrawing to their ivory towers, historically they have contributed to the challenges of their surrounding communities. Time has come to instil a new culture of academic engagement that might inspire a new generation of scholars willing to turn theory into practice through start-up ventures. Recently, we witnessed the emergence of various civic labs and advocacy clinics. These new actors are dedicated to engaging students to provide free legal, policy and business advice to individuals and organisations that might otherwise struggle to pay for such services. Clinics promoting such entrepreneurship within the academic community should be co-designed and offered by universities and businesses working in tandem.
- Instil a culture of civic entrepreneurship: Recognition matters. An EU award or titles awarded annually by EU political, business and civil society leaders to high achieving civic entrepreneurs would generate a culture of recognition, inspiring others to undertake projects in the name of the EU good. Today virtually all EU-funded awards tend to be tied to ongoing EU research projects, thus leaving aside a wealth of bottom-up and genuine initiatives.
The health and survival of our European societies hinge on cultivating innovative, empathetic, caring and thoughtful entrepreneurs who have the effrontery to assert their voices in their own spaces and communities. Evidence points to a burgeoning space composed of civic entrepreneurs willing to rethink and reshape European society from the bottom up. Unfortunately, these initiatives are not supported, not even by EU institutions struggling to keep pace with social change.
Paradoxically only civic entrepreneurs will be able to overcome such an impasse. Demonstrating their worth will enable the breeding of a new generation of European entrepreneurs who measure their success not only in terms of revenues/earnings but their beneficial impact on society and the natural environment.