Civic entrepreneurship

Entrepreneur has a short article on Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal and the idea of social entrepreneurs focusing on the public sector. Blumenthal democratized the eyewear industry to selling for $95 and donating a pair internationally. The thought experiment is: what if the same sort of things could be done in specific areas of the public sector?

“Where we need innovation and where I think we are going to finally see social entrepreneurs spend more and more time is the public sector, because the big challenge that is facing every community on the planet is that government and public policy are not moving at the pace of technology or even meeting expectations of constituents,” says Blumenthal. …

Entrepreneurs and governmental agencies can cross-pollinate in a number of ways, as Blumenthal sees it. For example, social entrepreneurs can go work in the government for a stint. Or, social entrepreneurs might build their own independent enterprises working with governmental data. For example, Civic Hall is a co-working space in New York dedicated to helping entrepreneurs build social-minded businesses that solve public issues.

The key for aspiring social entrepreneurs is to look for a problem in the world — preferably one that they understand well, Blumenthal says. In many ways, the Warby Parker model came out of his previous work at VisionSpring, a nonprofit that provides eyeglasses to the developing world.

A few years ago when I was living in Philadelphia, Gavin Keirans and I worked with Mayor Michael Nutter’s Office of Civic Engagement and Volunteer Service. We were hosting a Catholic service initiative and neighborhood cleanup in West Philadelphia.  The initiative went well, and the city staff was helpful, but there wasn’t a sense that systemic issues were being addressed that could solve neighborhood problems in a sustainable way.

In thinking about civic entrepreneurship, I think as with most things there are real opportunities on the fringe. In other words, I there are opportunities to solve public sector problems by ignoring the political infrastructure entirely to start with, hacking away at a specific and limited problem in a specific place, and in solving that problem discovering whether the solution can scale.

I like where Blumenthal’s head is at, and it’s something I’ll continue to think about.

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