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The Three R’s of the London Summer

An update on social innovation news and events from England's capital.

Nearly every conversation in London over the past month has started with one of three R's: rain, RIO, or road works.

London literally suffered weeks on end of rain. The floods in part of the country were strikingly ironic given the hosepipe ban due to water shortages earlier in the summer. Within 24 hours, 2 months worth of rain fell, and the ban was lifted. But the oscillation between shortages and excesses made its mark in many people's minds.

Fast-forward to RIO+20. As the planes of delegates arrived at Heathrow, media buzz was building about the failure of the climate negotiations. Terms such as “no-goitator” and “RIO+20-40” were just some of the jokes going around London about the lack of meaningful movement on climate change commitments.

At a Green Monday event on Green Corporate Energy, Peter Boyd from Carbon War Room painted a shocking picture of the challenge RIO is trying to address, explaining that it currently takes 768 grams of CO2 to generate $1 of GDP. If the world population grows to 9 billion people by 2050, this needs to be reduced to 6 grams of CO2 per $1 of GDP to prevent destabilizing climate change—that’s a 99 percent pivot from where we are now. 

Although the government commitments at RIO were weak at best, some European companies are starting to understand that we need to change “business as usual” practices. Ikea, for example, committed to sourcing 70 percent of its energy mix from renewable generation by 2015 (picture solar panels on those immense warehouse rooftops), and Desso is aiming for 100 percent by 2020.

Some side events from RIO had people talking too. My favorite was The Elders—an independent group of global leaders, including Desmond Tutu and Gro Brundtland, who work together for peace and human rights—in discussion with The Youngers. This discussion emphasized the importance of intergenerational collaboration on climate change issues.

Social enterprise was also in the air around the conference. The UN Global Compact and Rockefeller Foundation released their “A Framework for Action on Social Enterprise and Impact Investing” report, which provides a simple three-step framework for how investors, corporations, and governments can enable social enterprise development. For an optimistic view of RIO, check out Lindsay Clinton’s blog from our sister company SustainAbility.

Finally: road works. Londoners dealt with the mess of road works and diversions leading up to the Olympics with the uniquely British combination of dry humor, cynicism, and good old Dunkirk spirit. Although I evacuated the city, I did watch the opening ceremonies. Two aspects in particular stood out as celebrations of the broader social innovation and impact investing agendas.

The first was the surprise appearance of Tim Berners Lee. Although the founder of the World Wide Web is British, many of the digital media innovations referenced in the ceremony were California-based. Facebook and Twitter sprang from “the valley,” where there is a deep infrastructure to support the growth of innovation—social or otherwise—through established incubation models like Y-Combinator. (London has begun growing its own generation of accelerators, and many—including Bethnal Green Ventures—are focused on social innovation.) The UK government recently announced its intentions to support more of the incubators with a £10 million fund. The fund will invest in intermediary organizations that support the growth of social enterprise business models.

The other part of the ceremony that stood out to me was the performance by real National Healthcare Service (NHS) workers. It signaled the importance of the service in the UK. A breakthrough in its time (NHS was first introduced in 1948), the single-payer, government-run system is actually desperately in need of innovation, especially in this time of austerity. It is exciting to see a range of innovation actors gravitating to the field; it has become a magnet for both entrepreneurship and investment.

The social sector is becoming much more sophisticated in how it addresses this growing market opportunity in healthcare services. The Social Investment Business recently launched a £19 million Social Enterprise Investment Fund (SEIF) with the Department of Health to invest in health and social care social enterprises, which are delivering exceptional care and driving innovation. This kind of initiative will inevitably inspire the innovation needed to keep British citizens well cared for and healthy.

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