Social innovation the key to tackling society's problems, academic says
More than a decade after the original Commission on Poverty first floated the idea of bolstering the city's nascent social enterprise sector, its successor is taking to the task of actually making it happen.
Professor Kevin Au Yuk-fai of Chinese University's Centre for Entrepreneurship, a member of the Commission on Poverty's Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund task force, says there has been a "quantum leap" in social enterprise development in Hong Kong.
According to figures from the Council of Social Service-HSBC Social Enterprise Business Centre, the number of social enterprise projects grew from 269 in 2008 to 368 in 2011, while the number of operating organisations grew from 103 to 124 in the same period.
Social innovation refers to novel ideas which generate benefits for disadvantaged groups or have a positive effect on society.
The fund currently has an endowment of HK$500 million, but only 20 per cent will be allocated for spending in its first year of operation.
"Many are finally beginning to understand that social innovation is the key to tackling society's deep-seated problems," Au told the South China Morning Post, just a few days before today's first ever poverty summit, where measures on poverty alleviation will be discussed. Au said although the fund did not directly allocate money to the poor, the innovative ideas it would foster would likely flow to other social issues that need to be addressed, such as healthcare, education and housing, which would have a direct impact on poverty.
He pointed to successful social enterprises such as Diamond Cab, a taxi company catering to wheelchair users, as well as Dialogue in the Dark, a social enterprise originating from Germany, which arranges communication and exchange platforms for visually impaired people.
"These ventures have generated very high social returns on investment … together they will add to the ecology of the social enterprise sector and build more capacity for innovation," Au said.
Au said the "social returns" created by social enterprises could not always be measured effectively in monetary returns.
It was therefore hard to convince policymakers and private family foundations to allocate funds to support social entrepreneurs.
"Government funding can help lower their risk of investing in social innovation," Au said.