Social enterprise: Hackney's new big trend?

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Social enterprise: Hackney's new big trend?


Hackney is a byword for hipster trends but the evolution and development of social enterprises in the borough could be something more significant.

Marc Gosschalk

Mon 29 Oct 2018

Hackney: where even the finest avocado on sourdough can leave a slightly funny taste. It’s that bittersweet taste of gentrification, familiar in boroughs throughout the UK. But while Hackney’s struggles with avocados and artisan loaves are well-known, the borough is gaining a reputation for taking on such issues with fresh thinking.

Social Enterprises (SEs) as a way of giving back through business isn’t new, but the momentum behind them is. 

Two years ago, Hackney launched it’s own Social Enterprise Mark; one year ago Hackney became the second London Borough to be recognised as a Social Enterprise Place by SEUK; and this month sees the launch of Hackney’s Social Enterprise Manifesto at the Hackney: A Social Borough conference on 15 November.

So what’s behind these developments in the SE sector in Hackney?

Hackney Social Enterprise conference

Hackney is home to 300 social enterprises

First, some context: while SEs are best characterised by their values and what they do with their profits, Hackney is perhaps best characterised by cultural mixing and creativity.

Recent research* shows 90% feel it is important for people from different backgrounds to mix, but also highlights significant concerns around divisions in the community. Meanwhile, the struggles of much-loved venue Total Refreshment Centre is emblematic of the challenges for artists, musicians and creatives.

So in a community with a reputation for rising to social pressure, SEs are an increasingly popular course of action. And with over 300 in the borough, there are examples for every cause.

These include supporting the ‘have nots’ through education (Urban MBA, Confidence Academy for Mums) and employment (Breadwinners, Glow, Circle Collective); providing affordable space (Respace Projects, Cass & Claredale, Blume); promoting nature and healthy living (Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, Made in Hackney); supporting arts and crafts (840 Arts, Rural Handmade) and promoting cultural diversity and creativity (UK Teranga, Words of Colour), to name a few from those featuring in November’s conference alone.

Even Total Refreshment Centre is seeing social enterprise as a possible direction. ‘The prospect of an early curfew makes it virtually impossible to stay afloat as before.’ says Lexus Blondin, founder of TRC. ‘We’re exploring a redesign to create affordable work space for music freelancers, alongside space to develop local talent though the production of music, films and events. We’re having to adapt, and the social enterprise model is a way to show our commitment to the community’.

So, as the numbers of SEs rises, how are they faring?

Social enterprises are growing fast than regular for profit businesses. Trend or economic shift?

Across the UK, a higher proportion of SEs have grown revenues recently versus traditional businesses, and the ground in Hackney seems particularly fertile.

Many resourceful SEs are finding ways to do things more affordably, which is needed in a borough with high poverty. Then there is the new money to cover the costs of careful production.

‘Working closely with our makers at a small scale is expensive, so we look at areas like Broadway Market where people can pay a little extra’, says designer Comet Chukwuruh, founder of Glow, whose high-visibility knitwear is handmade by vulnerable women. ‘Sustainable lifestyles and buying ethically isn’t just a personal thing these days, it’s become trendy’.

Comet’s quick to point out that running her social enterprise has been incredibly difficult. But something that makes the SE sector in Hackney stand out is the level of co-operation and support around it. And in a place as diverse as Hackney, this is leading to unlikely alliances and collaborations of substance.

Examples include the eye-catching partnership between upcycling furniture social enterprise Restoration Station and designer Yinka Illori, the Community Food Forum, or indeed the upcoming SE manifesto.

The manifesto includes ways for the SE sector to be better understood, supported and promoted, such as the updated Hackney Social Enterprise mark. ‘The new mark goes further to answering the question of whether social enterprises are doing what they say they’re doing’, says Douglas Racionzer of Hackney Co-operative Developments, part of the Hackney Social Enterprise Place Partnership (HSEPP) behind the mark and manifesto.

The eleven HSEPP members include local social enterprises, supporting organisations, and institutions outside the sector, including UBS and Hackney Council. ‘We’re all still finding our way, but we’re doing it together’, says Douglas.

Such momentum, participation and collaboration is causing a stir, but many questions remain. What are the motivations for those involved? What’s the impact on social entrepreneurs, let alone their communities and environments? Is purpose more unifying than profit? Are we getting to the root issues, or papering over cracks?

As the SE movement grows, Hackney is looking to answer such questions by inviting everyone to the brunch table.

For more about the Hackney: A Social Borough conference on November 15th, click here. Marc Gosschalk is the founder of Hackney Roots and member of the Hackney Social Enterprise Place Partnership.

*Ipsos MORI’s 2016 research ‘A Place for Everyone