Social Entrepreneurship Isn’t Enough: Why we must think radically.

John Elkington at McKinsey and Company asks: Can social entrepreneurs create the necessary large-scale change to solve the problems of our world? He answers simply, “No.”

Elkington writes:

The uncomfortable truth is that the nature and scale of the economic, social, environmental, and governance challenges we face are unparalleled. Humanity is headed towards 9 billion people by midcentury, with more than half of our species already concentrated in seething urban areas—and billions more destined to follow. Add to that the growing risks related to abrupt climate change; pandemics; and energy, water, and food security.

Tragically, Elkington is correct. Many people, including many social entrepreneurs, are still unwilling to think radically. We won’t rise to these challenges by taking anything for granted.

Saving ourselves from monopolies:

Social entrepreneurs looking to solve world problems like global poverty must be willing to strike the root. They must innovate in the rules and systems that connect us.

Large-scale monopolies in education, law, community, and governance dominate today’s world. These are the areas most important to human well-being. And since these are tools for cultural change, these monopolies also prevent transitions to healthier cultures.

To build a wealthy world with good stewardship of natural resources and human flourishing we must innovate in education, law, community, and governance.

In most of the world, education is a large, centralized system on a one-size-fits all-model. The curriculum is standardized. Teachers are chosen by a central licensing standard. Most schools feature similar ‘subject’ breakdowns, classroom styles, teaching methods, cafeterias, athletic fields, even architecture. This model enjoys such widespread monopoly power that even other initiatives – like many charter schools – copy the model with only slight variation.

Many communities are tiny variations on the same suburban, subdivision model. Law and governance are also provided by central institutions with monopolies over large territories. Legal systems are one-size-fits-all. These monopolies enjoy the privilege of arbitrating their own disputes. When governments and other large entities are challenged, they are often bound only to the rules which they have set for themselves. Tragically, this can lead to abuse and inequality beneath the law. It also means that those with levers of power can skew the law in their favor — and impose it on a huge captive audience.

Compare the large monopoly providers in these areas with the flagship projects of 21st century entrepreneurship.

YouTube challenges media monopolies by turning everyone into a potential producer and star. Kickstarter innovates around large foundations and patrons by crowdsourcing the creation of art and culture. KhanAcademy and Skillshare democratize education and build classrooms throughout our communities with their skill exchanges. Wikipedia upends established encyclopedias by throwing open the doors to collaboration and transparency in knowledge-sharing.

All of these projects have been startling successes. They appeared suddenly and with little warning. By challenging monopolies in each of their areas they have cleared the path for further innovation. They show people that something better – something beyond yesterday’s monopolies – is possible.

This same spirit must be brought to the areas which remain monopolized: law, governance, community, and education. Social entrepreneurs who want to improve the world should expect more in these areas of our lives.

Monopolies benefit from double-standards. We know technology is open to disruptive innovation. If we don’t realize that our social systems are open to entrepreneurship, they will never advance.

For example, in America, our large monopolistic school system has massive ‘market share’ in education, like Microsoft once enjoyed in technology or Exxon in oil. Microsoft or Exxon are often regarded as monopolies standing in the way of social progress, while centralized, compulsory schools are rarely challenged.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have widespread access to schools, or programs which help or provide education in a society. But it is a double-standard to ignore centralization and monopoly power in one area, but not the other.

We should be concerned about monopolies everywhere: since it is well known that they tend to restrain innovation and provide low-quality service at high cost. Large-scale monopoly services oppose newer, more humane institutions which challenge their position of power.

Our evolving world needs constant innovation to keep our institutions in line.

A newer paradigm.

Few are happy with today’s monopolies: education, law, community and governance are regularly considered ‘in crisis.’ Reform can be slow and demoralizing. 21st-century social theories like Public Choice, Political Ignorance, Evolutionary Epistemology, Complexity Theory, and New Institutional Economics all detail the failings of today’s monopolistic paradigm.

These theories also help us understand the failure of traditional methods, including ‘politics as usual’, to solve these problems.

These problems are endemic to today’s paradigm, which considers our social systems beyond innovation. If our law and governance structures themselves are part of the problem, can we realistically expect them to reform themselves if they enjoy powerful positions of entrenched monopoly?

We must be willing to be radical, because major innovation in the rules and systems that connect us is the only solution to jumpstarting social evolution.

Radical social entrepreneurs must extend their skepticism of monopolies to the entire monopoly paradigm. None should be left unchallenged. Instead of monopoly, we should consider consent.


  1. [...] Do we feel that today new ideas for society are given a frontier to test themselves and a fair hearing? I doubt it. There are still too many monopolies in law, governance, education and community. [...]