Q & A with Durreen Shahnaz, Head of PSIC
Q. What inspired you to create the Program for Social Innovation and Change (PSIC) at the LKY School?
The study of social innovation is a new field, creating new space for public policy scholarship and education. Currently, many of the leading academic institutions in the west are beginning to focus on this area. As a school focused on innovative public policy solutions, LKY School is uniquely positioned to take on the leadership role in the social innovation space in Asia. This role is particularly crucial in light of the current economic crisis, which is putting intense pressure on governments to create measures to bolster economic activities with positive societal impact while producing sustainable economic returns.
Through the Social Innovation Program (SIP), LKY School can target numerous audiences within NUS and beyond; including: LKY School’s students, public policy scholars, the investment community and social innovators around the world. Through course work and practical experience, LKY School students will learn how to be change makers and effective social innovators. Through research publication and case studies focused on Asia, academic institutions around the world will be exposed to an Asian perspective on the social innovation movement.
Social innovation programmes are traditionally housed in business schools. Why did you choose to house the SIP at the LKY School of Public Policy, and how will that affect your approach versus conventional business school approaches?
Social Innovation refers to non-traditional ways of meeting social needs. Social needs are met from private, public and civil sectors. Given its importance in any of these sectors, SIP can easily fit in either a Public Policy or a Business School setting.
Q. What kinds of social enterprises will the PSIC focus on studying, and what approach will you take to evaluate their impact?
Asia has the largest number of social enterprises in the world. SIP will focus on a subset of these enterprises. These enterprises will be:
- For profit and not-for profits
- Financially viable
- Expansion stage
- Easily replicable
- Achieving UN's Millennium Development Goals
- Eradicate poverty and hunger
- Achieve universal primary education
- Promote gender equality and empower women
- Reduce child mortality
- Improve maternal health
- Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
- Ensure environmental sustainability
- Develop a global partnership for development
A number of these enterprises will be studied closely to evaluate their successes and failures. PSIC will write case histories on these enterprises.
Case studies produced in PSIC will take a holistic approach in incorporating economic, social, cultural, political, environmental and ethical aspects of social innovation and embrace various forces, both macro and micro, affecting the enterprises studied. PSIC case studies will explore and identify business models, public policy techniques and ‘know-how’ skills that can be used to create social, environmental and economic value in a community. This will be a unique approach to portraying social enterprises through writing case studies.
Q. Tell us more about how you plan to develop a social return index.
While the economic return generated by an enterprise is a concept that is relatively well understood and straightforward to measure, the social return (defined as the social good/social impact that is produced by an enterprise) is much less well understood and more difficult to measure. The difficulty arises from several aspects of the problem: the need to determine which social goods should be measured; the fact that many of these social goods are difficult to quantify; and the problem of doing so in a way that allows for meaningful comparison across a variety of different social goods and meaningful comparison between social return and economic return of the enterprise. The difficulties become clear when one considers some examples of the various “social impacts” of an enterprise that may be considered in calculating social return -- such as, how many lives this social enterprise has lifted from poverty, how the lives of the enterprise’s consumers or suppliers have been improved (eating better, sending children to school, better health care etc.), how its work impacted the environment, etc.
Recognizing these difficulties, PSIC will nevertheless work to advance the research in this field by building on efforts to rigorously quantify social return. The ultimate goal of this effort would be to define a workable “Social Return Index” (SRI) to measure the social return of an enterprise in as comprehensive a manner as possible. The project will assess combinations of qualitative and quantitative indicators and will carefully evaluate how these indicators might be appropriately weighted and combined. This research into developing a SRI will serve as a means to bring rigor to the intellectual debate over what contributions a social enterprise actually makes to society. At the same time, the effort and process directed toward developing an accepted, functional social return index will act as a valuable educational tool which will enhance the experience of students at the LKY School.
Q. How do you think the present financial crisis will affect the social innovation sector? With less liquidity around, will social enterprises have difficulty raising funds? Is this the right time to be starting an PSIC?
The present financial crisis has actually made people stop and think of the limitations of focusing on only single bottom line approach (financial return) to an enterprise. Thus, in effect, the financial crisis has made social enterprises an essential vehicle through which a society can meet its social, environmental and financial challenges. As for fund raising, now social enterprises are noticed more than any other times. This is because throughout this crisis, social enterprises have demonstrated better returns than traditional firms. What social enterprises are proving is that at times like this a micro finance institution’s 97% repayment rate and 10%+ return is music to any investor’s ear whether they care about the social return or not.
Consequently, as for starting PSIC at this time, I could not have started it at a better time.
Q. What could the government of a country do to provide an enabling environment for social enterprises to propagate and grow?
The biggest assistance a government can provide is on the regulation side. They need to make it easy for social entrepreneurs to start up an enterprise. Case in point, in Singapore, it takes over 2 years to start a social enterprise (if one wants to categorize it as such); however, to start a single bottom line company it takes at most two days.
Furthermore, a lot of for-profit Social Enterprises fall through the crack because they do not qualify for grants and their hybrid model is at times difficult for investors grasp. The government can do its part in assisting these companies with seed financing and getting them off the ground.
Lastly, the government needs to boost this new, dynamic sector by doing marketing and advocacy work on its behalf. That work alone can push these social enterprises to the next level of growth and recognition. The UK government has been in the forefront in all these respects and other governments can study and implement some their initiatives.