In a world where bad news is never more than a click away, it’s all too easy to get discouraged by looming social and environmental challenges. But one Canadian sees these problems as opportunities.

“I like to call it ‘the upside of down,’” says Shaun Loney, a leading expert on social enterprises, which he defines as community businesses that use market forces to solve stubborn challenges (such as poverty, homelessness and unemployment) typically taken on at great expense by government or charitable organizations.

Based in Winnipeg (under Treaty 1), Loney worked for the Manitoba provincial government in the early 2000s before deciding he could effect more change from the outside.

He is the author of two books on the subject (An Army of Problem Solvers and The Beautiful Bailout), and has helped co-found 12 different social enterprises across Canada. He started with BUILD, an organization that empowers people with limited employment experience to undertake maintenance and renovation work that “lowers utility bills, employs neighbourhood people, cuts crime and decreases greenhouse gas emissions.”

Another of his ventures, Aki Energy, employed local workers to install $6 million of geothermal energy systems in 350 homes on four First Nations in Manitoba, which will save $15 million on utility bills over 20 years.

Municipalities and provincial governments across the country are taking note of these successes because social enterprises tend to support people whose current interactions with government and emergency services are costly.

“Problems are very expensive. Solutions are cheaper, every time,” Loney says.

Reconciliation is also key to how Loney approaches his work. Across Canada, Indigenous People are overrepresented in prisons, make up more than half of children in care and have higher incidences of diabetes than the non-Indigenous population.

Social enterprises are actually Indigenous business models because “they value people and the planet rather than greed and extraction, and they present a path to addressing the inequity of Indigenous social outcomes.

“Poverty is nothing more than the absence of prosperity,” Loney says (drawing on a quotation from the late journalist Jane Jacobs), and “the way to overcome poverty is by promoting prosperity.”

He predicts social enterprises will be disruptive business models in the same way Uber and AirBnB revolutionized their respective industries.

“We don’t do things better, we do them differently. But that enables us to be very transformative in the work that we’re doing,” he says, noting that foundations with capital for investment, governments open to new solutions, and continued discussion around reconciliation are the elements of “a perfect storm for creating an ecosystem where social enterprises are going to grow very quickly.”

Read more:
Alberta Social Innovation: What is a social enterprise?
BC Centre for Social Enterprise: Do definitions matter?
Forbes: “The Rise Of The Social Enterprise: A New Paradigm For Business”