Marmalade, the new fringe event to the Skoll World Forum, was a surefire success in its debut year. A week of workshops, panel discussions, networking and ideation sessions departed from stale conference formats. The event attracted thoughtful, energetic people and provided a stimulating environment for them to have great ideas. From learning about BCorps to plotting my anti-fragile social impact career with Worthwhile, there was much for this social enterprise newbie to take away.
Marmalade risked being an event for social entrepreneurs and its cheerleaders to come together and talk about how fantastic they all are. But I think its democratic format tempered this eventuality. The user-generated programme provided space for sector big-hitters such as UnLtd and Ashoka as well as smaller, radical groups such as The Elysia Commons. Focus on discussion and problem-solving levelled the playing field when it came to contributing ideas, drawing out a refreshing diversity of opinion and approaches.
A session I particularly enjoyed, and which highlighted this starkly, was ‘Whose social innovation is it anyway?’ led by Jess Cordingly from the LankellyChase Foundation. We were led through a group discussion of what ‘social innovation’ really means, disentangling the jargon and pinning down the buzzwords. We found common themes such as community focus and novel approaches. Through this lens, we then considered what conditions are needed to support people suffering multiple, severe disadvantage, the focus of LankellyChase’s work. Groups agreed that there was a notable absence of service user perspectives; their opinion would have galvanised the debates. Nevertheless, the discussion highlighted less fashionable, often overlooked factors, such as nutrition.
A workshop on the costs of failure with UnLtd was particularly fascinating to attend and observe. Through participation, it teased out the prevailing attitude of social entrepreneurs towards failure. The session was tactfully led by Roxanne Persaud, in a way that was open enough for participants to be comfortable expressing personal emotions without it becoming group therapy. As the session was about exploring the costs of failure, it seemed that many participants jumped the gun and were all too keen to praise failure as a learning experience without properly engaging with the question of who suffers as a result. Have we all been so coached about seeing the bright side of failure that we can’t admit it still feels terrible?
Social entrepreneurs have beneficiaries and partners who, if social impact is genuinely being achieved, will be affected by failure. Whilst taking risks may be virtuous, the reality of failure shouldn’t be glossed over by praising the entrepreneur for trying. This is what this session was getting at: picking away at uncritical praise of failure that is solidly pro-entrepreneur and ignores the impact on the web of relationships that surrounds them. So good on UnLtd and Roxanne for challenging the pro-failure narrative that I personally see as over-indulgent.
The inquisitive nature of Marmalade’s workshops and several days of continuous problem-solving were certainly mentally taxing. However, I returned to work with a fresh perspective and the sense of community that comes with the awareness of being part of a wider ecosystem. Marmalade was challenging, reflective and at times overwhelming. I will be attending again next year.