My research is about the way people overcome barriers and realise potentials to address -- perhaps even solve -- messy but nonetheless urgent policy problems. This is exactly what social entrepreneurs do. They overcome barriers by tapping into society’s problem-solving capacities in innovative ways. Social entrepreneurs spot unmet needs and find practical ways of meeting them.

Grass shifting Cobble-Stones -- A metaphor for Social Business?
Social entrepreneurs seem far less encumbered by ideological and institutional fetters. Although social entrepreneurs are often embedded in a specific context (say, the healthcare system), they are very adept of moving back and forth between different institutional environments. The move with ease in markets, state bureaucracies, town halls, charities or churches. What is more, they use ideas from all these places to craft practicable policy solutions for problems believed to be beyond solution. In short, social entrepreneurship find effective and practical solutions -- social innovations -- to messy policy problems.

I really want to find out just how they do it. In particular, I want to know how social entrepreneurs use the resources in their institutional environments to create social innovations. At present, there is little in the way of systematic analysis of social entrepreneurship. What little does exist, such as the brilliant book by David Bornstein, tends to focus on individual social entrepreneurs. The relationship between social entrepreneurs and their institutional environments remains largely uncharted territory. Yet, if we want to know whether social entrepreneurs can replicate in the global North their spectacular successes in parts of the developing world, we will need to find out more about the way social entrepreneurs operate in dense institutional environments.

Making inroads into any of the questions will require us researchers following the lead of social entrepreneurs. Just like social innovation draws on ideas and methods from a wide diversity of sources, the study of social entrepreneurship will need to devise robust and interdisciplinary methods. This must include dispassionate methods that put distance between the researcher and the social entrepreneur as well as methods that blur the distinction between researcher and social entrepreneur. Most importantly, however, research into social innovation will have to be as applied and problem-oriented as social innovation itself.

Ultimately, I would like to find ways to ‘bottle’ some of the spirit of entrepreneurship that has made such an impressive impact in places like Bangladesh. Doing this involves answering questions like:

  • What types of socio-economic, political and cultural contexts favour social entrepreneurship? How can we promote these contexts?

  • What distinguishes social entrepreneurs from commercial entrepreneurs or policy entrepreneurs?

  • What drives social innovation and social entrepreneurship?

  • What tools do we need to study social entrepreneurship and social innovation?

  • How can we strategically integrate social innovation and social entrepreneurship into policy-making?

  • What is the relationship between social innovation, social entrepreneurship and social learning and adaptation?