Should business incubators house both social enterprises and ‘normal’ enterprises?

Should business incubators house both social enterprises and ‘normal’ enterprises?





Consultation is ongoing towards the drafting of a differentiated social enterprise strategy for Scotland. One remaining topic is the extent to which social businesses should be treated differently from private sector business. This is the theme of an interesting letter we received recently from an Economic Development Officer with Cambridge Council who asks whether business incubators should house both social enterprises and ‘normal’ enterprises.



Dear Laurence,


I enjoyed this recent entry in Regeneration and Renewal (Last Word – 25/11/05  ‘Altering the terms of social enterprise”). Your point about the limited number of social ‘revolutionaries’ applies exactly the same to regular enterprise.


This has been one of the mistakes in promoting enterprise in this country – the perception that you have to be the next Branson or Sugar to be an entrepreneur. Equally you don’t have to be the next Ashoka or Schwab and Skoll to be social entrepreneurs as you intimate, rather ‘just’ have the desire and commitment to make a difference. Which brings me to the issue of social entrepreneurs v regular entrepreneurs.


I am an EDO with the city council in Cambridge and need to promote both. ‘Is this two seperate tasks?’ I keep asking myself. Our regional development agency, EEDA, thinks not and is developing an operating plan that puts enterprise and social enterprise together.  We have some exciting projects for community and social enterprise incubators in the city but we are of course slave to our funders and we are being led down the route of developing them as start-up incubators for social enterprise and regular commercial start-ups together. Can these be one and the same thing?  One of our own policy objectives is to create a social enterprise cluster, much in the way that Cambridge has become home to clusters of hi-tech businesses.


While I see the importance of avoiding compartmentalising social enterprise, and of realising that the business characteristics of a regular and a social start-up should be much the same, is it realistic or practical to have effective SE incubators that house both?


I would like to imagine an enterprise incubator that is a happy mix of both kinds of enterprise, social and commercial, where there is no line between them, where each helps the other and social and community responsibility features prominently! I’m not sure how realistic this is though! The reality is that while these will be ‘incubators’ there will be some existing vol/com organisations that take up some of the space who remain strongly of the view that hard commercial enterprise and social objectives don’t mix and whose income streams remain minimal.


At this important development stage of our incubator projects, I am keen to garner some expert opinions.


With best wishes,


Andrew Poulton

Economic Policy Officer

Cambridge City Council