In this anthology, I challenge the next generation of social enterprise leaders to embrace preemption as a critical tool for the impact-centered business-design process. “Toward a Preemptive Social Enterprise” is a manifesto and series of essays, scenarios and tools that aim to challenge a constantly evolving industry to think bigger. The theory of preemptive social enterprise is built upon a critical observation: conventional social entrepreneurs are limited by a culture of innovation that is exclusively rewarded for the art of reaction. While many consumers celebrate the modern social entrepreneur’s ability to react and program their business around critical causes, I argue that this trait may be among the biggest shortcomings of the field.
In the 18th Century, just three decades prior to the birth of Leland Stanford, Adam Smith defined “entrepreneur” as a person who acts as an agent in transforming demand into supply. This specific definition, the concept of an entrepreneur as a supplier of what the customer wants, is in agreement with many definitions that preceded Smith. However, this was not a philosophy that remained a static definition of the practice. In his book, The Design of Business, Roger Martin speaks of entrepreneurship and innovation as a way of seeing the world “not as it is, but as it could be.” The book goes on to argue that true innovation stems from the exploration of problems that cannot actually be found in history or proven by data. Perhaps in a more extreme use of language, Erik Reis offers up another take on the practice defining entrepreneurship as the act of creating something new under “extreme uncertainty.”
From juxtaposing the 21st Century definition of the field with the 18th and early 19th century definitions, it might seem as though entrepreneurship has evolved from a practice that supplies a demand to a profession that creates demands — from a field of regurgitation to a practice of innovation. However, these theories are not honest representations of the true landscape of contemporary social innovation.
Business theorists believe that consumers only know what they need after a change or event has taken place. Therefore, entrepreneurship is always a response, or a reaction. This is especially relevant in social enterprise, a field of business that is solely rewarded for its triumphs in sub-optimal situations. As practitioners of social enterprise, we hold the assumption that our responsibility is to exclusively act post-crisis in order to gradually chip away at a persistent problem, or to maintain a state of peace. The art of reaction is necessary, but the expectation of post-traumatic innovation as the singular starting point for an entire industry is limiting.
We need to change this limiting outlook on social entrepreneurship by suggesting a new category within the field that is not a response, but a catalyst: Preemptive Social Entrepreneurship. What if social enterprise was also responsible for preemption? What if social entrepreneurs were also futurists?
A preemptive social enterprise is the opposite of a reactive social enterprise, the norm of socially responsible innovation. While traditional for-profit enterprises are rewarded for investing in visions of the future, social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders are rewarded for reacting to problems that already exist. It is crucial that the social sector continues to react to the problems of today, but we must also advocate for the integration of strategic foresight in our practice.
It is time for the field of social enterprise, and the role of social entrepreneurs to change drastically. We have entered a time in which we lack the capability to foresee what technological advancements will take place in the next four years. It’s said that the 10 most sought after jobs of 2010 did not exist in 2004, and I argue that the top 30 jobs of 2030 do not exist as I sit at my desk, typing this today. So how do we, as designers, understand the future of markets, and the future of business design? We make it up.
A preemptive social entrepreneur is one who creates the ideal in order to imagine a perfect future, using fiction to work towards it and to express it. We must invest in imagination. The invention of fantasy, scenarios, and products of fiction is not where the process ends, it is what allows us to see and react to what is needed. The future of social enterprise must include strategic foresight, and the next generation of social entrepreneurs must welcome a balance of those who choose to focus their efforts on a preemptive enterprise, and those who choose to focus their efforts around reactivity.
As research scientists in the field of quantum physics attempt a discovery, a breakthrough is revealed in that which is counterintuitive. For example, 0.999 is equal to one. In this space, human intuition becomes irrelevant because the areas explored are not comparable to that of any past experience. The same can be said about the very distant future. Both are spaces in which common sense alone is considered shortsighted. In this space as well as other domains in which expertise is not possible, like stock picking or long-term political strategic forecasting, experts are no better than a roll of the dice.
As we continue to rapidly move towards a future, and past experience exponentially divides from the present condition, we will enter an era in which innovation-by-reaction alone will be deemed impossible due to over-saturation and incomprehensible uncertainty. To avoid this, social enterprise will need to shift in one of two directions: one of preemption (meaning, less dependent upon reaction), and one of randomization (meaning more open-minded and dynamic approaches to findings things worth reacting to).
So how do we start? By making the time for the future and adopting futures methods into our day-to-day practice as social entrepreneurs, we will gain the capability to think systemically about the implications of our work. Alan Kay is famous for saying that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” In working together to adopt more preemptive practices, we can begin to solve the right problems in order to invent the future we’d like to inhabit. Welcome, the preemptive social entrepreneur. We need you, and we’re glad you’re here.”