Reporting back from ISIRC 2012

31.10.2012 Blog

Over three days this September, academics and practitioners working in the field of social innovation and social enterprise met for the International Social Innovation Research Conference (ISIRC), hosted by the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham. The ISIRC has its roots in a Social Enterprise conference first held at the Open University in 2004 so it was not surprising to see a strong emphasis on social enterprise in the research papers presented. However the most striking impression from the event was the sheer diversity of work being done across the fields of social enterprise, social entrepreneurship and social innovation. The conference also lived up to its international title with papers from Russia, Japan, India, Greece, Australia and Canada as well as many from the UK.
Paper presentations were organised along five tracks:

Starting and scaling up examined theories of entrepreneurship and venture growth and investigated how some of these theories could be applied to social enterprises. 
Critical perspectives explored and challenged some of the dominant discourses around social entrepreneurship today.
Impact and performance examined some of the disparate approaches that are emerging for measuring social impact.
Public services and innovation explored innovation in public service provision, with a particular focus on the context of austerity.
Governance and stakeholder relationships examined the challenges that social enterprises face around governance.

The plenary sessions that opened and closed each day featured researchers from a broad range of disciplines, and were a particular highlight of the event. Dennis Young from Georgia State University kicked things off with a paper that explored the careful balancing act that social enterprises must perform if they are to fulfil dual economic and social aims. He suggested a new metaphor for thinking about the diversity of organisations that we understand as social enterprises (‘the zoo’) which was to crop up in conversations throughout the next couple of days. Florentine Maier from Vienna University of Economics and Business discussed social enterprise through the eyes of Antonio Gramsci, and asked whether we should view social enterprise as part of an effort by global business elites to create a new hegemony. Paul Tracey from the Judge Business School shared his experience using organisational ethnography to study a social enterprise in East Anglia, Keystone, over a period of 6 months. Graham Smith from the University of Southampton brought a political theory perspective to proceedings, arguing that there should be a stronger connection between our understanding of the social economy and normative democratic theory. On the last day, Pascal Dey from the University of St Gallen looked at the issue of identification and analysed to what extent social entrepreneurs identify with the different discourses around social enterprise. Finally, Alex Nicholls from the Said Business School at the University of Oxford presented some initial findings of his recent work looking at power and politics in social innovation across different countries.

The plenary sessions and individual tracks provided much food for thought which we’ll no doubt be reflecting on as we continue with the TEPSIE research. Many thanks to Simon Teasdale and his team at the Third Sector Research Centre for a great conference and particularly for bringing together such a diverse range of keynote speakers.