Revista Iberoamericana de
Economía Solidaria e
Innovación Socioecológica
Vol. 3 (2020), pp. 189-223 • ISSN: 2659-5311
P 
Empresa social; economía social y solida-
ria; ecosistema; investigación; teoría crítica.
Social enterprise; social and solidarity
economy; ecosystem; research; critical theory.
El objetivo de este artículo es proporcionar
una reflexión conceptual a la luz de la reexamina-
ción de la noción de investigación de la empresa
social (ES) dentro de la perspectiva más amplia
de los "ecosistemas" desarrollada en el último
decenio. Partiendo del análisis de algunos de los
desafíos societales más urgentes, se describe el
contexto actual de la investigación de la ES. A con-
tinuación, se examinan algunos de los proyectos
más recientes sobre la ES en particular y la econo-
mía social y solidaria en general, así como sobre la
innovación social, con miras a señalar las repercu-
siones -tanto para la comunidad académica como
para la sociedad en general- del desarrollo de un
"enfoque de ecosistemas de ES". Posteriormente
se identifican algunas lagunas permanentes en la
investigación de la ES y se hace hincapié en las po-
sibles reconfiguraciones que es probable que se
produzcan en cuanto a los desafíos ecosistémicos.
The aim of this paper is to provide a concep-
tual reflection resulting from the re-examination of
the notion of social enterprise (SE) research within
the wider “ecosystems” perspective developed
in the past decade. Departing from the analysis
of some of the most urgent societal challenges,
the current context for conducting SE research
is described. Next, some of the most recent re-
search of SE and the wider social and solidarity
economy and social innovation is reviewed with a
view on pointing out the repercussions —both for
the academic community and society overall— of
the development of a "SE ecosystem approach".
Some standing SE research gaps are then identi-
fied while emphasizing possible reconfigurations
likely to occur in terms of ecosystemic challenges.
Samuel Barco Serrano
Rocío Nogales Muriel
EMES Network
Códigos JEL
: B59.
Fecha de recepción: 5/9/2020 Fecha de aceptación: 26/10/2020
191RIESISE, 3 (2020) pp. 189-223
A recurrent question when presenting some of the pitfalls of the current
socioeconomic system is: how to change it to make it more sustainable and
fairer for all? This question points directly at the rising levels of inequality
and the deficit in citizen participation that jeopardize the achievement of
decent living conditions for most citizens. After more than twenty years of
active research on social enterprise and related topics such as social and
solidarity economy (SSE) and social innovation (we refer to these general
research areas as the `SE field´), international communities of researchers
have addressed the issue not only of how to do it but who does it, with
whom and for what.1 The issue of purpose, a multiplicity of agencies and
power relations, and the relational and participative dimensions of the
economy indeed lay at the core of what we know as the ‘human economy,
where a plurality of socioeconomic institutions can thrive while ensuring
that emancipation of the concerned groups, as well as values such as justice
and equality, remain at the core (Hart et al. 2010). Therefore a question
that arises recurrently at gathering of SE researchers, particularly when it
comes to young PhD candidates and recent graduates is “how can we, as
researchers, contribute to the emergence of this new paradigm?”.
In this context, the goal of this paper is to provide a reflection stemming
from the re-examination of the notion of SE research within the wider
ecosystems” perspective developed in the past decade as well as some
policy reflections around this topic. In order to achieve this, we bring to the
fore some urgent societal challenges framing the context where research on
SE takes place. Next, the basis for an analysis will be the provided by a brief
review of some of the most recent research on SE with a view on pointing to
the repercussions —both for the academic community and society overall—
of the development of a ‘SE ecosystem approach’. Departing from this
initial analysis, we identify some standing research gaps in the SE field while
1 A seminal work published in 2013 by Dennis Young posed a crucial question for the sector
“If not for profit, for what?”. The book is available for download here: https://scholarworks. The title and core proposition of the book inspired an international
conference on social enterprise held in Belgium in 2017 where not only the organizational
purpose but the connections to society were debated and expanded.
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emphasizing possible reconfigurations likely to occur in terms of broader
ecosystemic challenges.
Bringing this meta-reflection on SE research itself to the fore from a
context-dependent analysis contributes to the scientific dialogue and,
particularly, to strategies that the new generation of researchers are
developing and are likely to consolidate in the near future.
The current article is the result of two lectures presented at a seminar one
year before the Covid19 pandemic shook the world.2 Therefore, the effects
of this crisis are not fully taken into account, although it is quite surprising to
see how some elements forming the blueprint of the pandemic-accelerated
economic and productive breakdown were already in place. Reflections
about social transformation and sustainability need to be connected to the
wider issues of economic and environmental transitions (including energy
and food transitions). Increasing consciousness about climate change
opened the door to the urgency to work toward multiple “unavoidable
transitions”, although the strategies were not alway clear and multiple factors
jeopardize their crystallization (Collado 2013, Klein 2014). This multiple
transition and chained crises context is where SE research has been taking
place, so looking at it more in detail presents a good starting point.
Several scenarios have been suggested from various disciplines to bring
forward the options that we face as a species at this point in history.3 Castells
and his colleagues (2012) describe an economic system composed of four
layers where new values and practices are emerging everywhere to face
the current cultural crisis of unsustainability. The first layer is composed
of a revamped informational capitalist economy with a dominating
professional class considered as a new type of elite. Regarding the public
and semi-public sector, they entered a crisis in the late-80s fueled by a
neoliberal political agenda with a full New Public Management strategy
and concrete austerity measures. This crisis (aggravated by others like the
Covid19 pandemic) is here to stay unless the role and relevance of the
public sector is reinvigorated with the support of citizen movements and
2 The REJIES-COST International PhD Seminar entitled “Social economy and social
enterprise research: Keys from an international perspective” was held at the University of
Seville (Spain) in April 2019. More information about this seminar is available here: http://www.
3 As already mentioned, post-Covid19 crisis scenarios are not taken into account for the
description presented here but the reflections and conclusions remain valid in the current “new
normality” context.
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193RIESISE, 3 (2020) pp. 189-223
adaptation to emerging societal needs (e.g. new municipalism to increase
local governments’ autonomy in negotiating with other government
levels). Traditional economic activities in industry and even agriculture
will be oriented to the survival of their workers, who will occupy low
productivity and low-skill jobs. In many cases, these are ‘bulshit jobs’ that
are creating a full generation of the working poor (Graeber 2013). Indeed,
in-work poverty constitutes a growing source of inequality: in 2017,
9.4% of all EU-28 workers lived in households at risk of poverty, which
corresponds to 20.5 million people (Peña-Casas et al. 2019). Castells and
his colleagues call the fourth layer of the current economy ‘an alternative
economy sector’, based on a different set of values about the meaning
of life (Castells et al. 2012). The values driving these actors and groups
have been reshaped by current circumstances and include respect for the
planet, interconnectedness, citizen mobilization and the common good.
Feminist and social philosopher Nancy Fraser (2014) laid out three
possible scenarios to overcome the 2008 crisis. In the first scenario, political
elites react on time enough to avoid a new crisis but since profound change
does not occur, inequalities increase. In the aftermath of the pandemic it
will be abundantly clear that unfortunately, the commodification of nature
that Karl Polanyi warned about is yet another illusion shattered by a small
virus. The second scenario Fraser proposes describes a downward spiral
of disintegration as a result of political elites’ inability to react. Society
overall enters into this spiral proving containment measures useless. The
third scenario depicts civil society regaining strength to force political
elites to review the structures that ensure social justice and avoid rampant
The role of the third sector and SE in the health and social service sector
offers a concrete illustration of one of these scenarios. For instance, Pestoff
(2009) has studied these services across countries and specific service
fields, such as child care, considering them as paradigmatic of a crucial
policy for citizens that attract a lot of interest and budgets, and where social
enterprises have thrived. The author describes three different evolutionary
moments of the most probable scenario in Europe in a framework of
efficiency-driven rationalization and neoliberal budget setting. The first
moment of Pestoffs scenario includes massive cuts in public budgets for
social services resulting in a wide number of families and communities
without access to these services. The following moment is characterized
by the rampant privatization of social services leading to increased levels
of individualization and presence of private companies. Lastly, at this point
there could be enough room for the third sector to negotiate action areas in
this formerly public, now shrunken policy space, complete with new players
with different goals to maximize.
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A consensus among many authors, including those previously cited,
seems to emerge on the following points in today’s socio-economic
scenarios: the re-marketization of spheres that are basic for the reproduction
of life; the collapse of the public sector as we knew it; and the anti-austerity
social movements that have crystallized in concrete socioeconomic forms of
organization with a political transformative agenda. In addition to describing
possible scenarios, it becomes urgent to recognize the signs of a downward
spiral in light of the continuous rise of inequality and the speed of planetary
ecological destruction. Beyond the “evolution or revolution” dichotomy,
Edgar Morin suggests the strategy of metamorphosis as the only complex
but possible way, versus the increasingly plausible way of disintegration
(2013). In Morin’s terms, the metamorphosis idea is better suited for the
complexity of our societies facing objective resource limitations.
Moreover, when compared to possible revolutions implying a destruction
and reconstruction from scratch approach, Morin’s proposal applies a principle
of conservation: both of nature as well as of some of the cultural heritage
from previous societies and civilizations. At this point it is also relevant to
bring forward the role of power in Morin’s concept of metamorphosis. Thus,
following a relational idea of power such as Foucaults (1980), the potential
metamorphosis should also change how those power relationships occur in
our society. In this sense, the definition of power or even its consideration as a
variable of analysis in research is often neglected. When applying Foucault’s
view to the current analysis, a metamorphosis in society could also result in
changes in complex power relationships such as those included under the
concept of biopower, i.e. changes in norms which are internalized by people,
rather than forced upon them by an external force.
Another relevant power analysis which we can bring to the fore is the
concept of symbolic power by Bourdieu (1984). This type of power was firstly
defined as “name, renown, prestige, honour, glory, authority, everything
which constitutes symbolic power as a recognized power” and it points to
the fundamental role played by education and culture in determining how
hierarchies of power are situated and reproduced across societies. This is to
say, that in order to fully understand the different scenarios and the underlying
“theory of change” (i.e. the proposal of a metamorphosis) we also need to
understand the role of power. Such an endeavor requires using more complex
definitions and approaches than—using Foucaults proposals again—liberal,
psychoanalytical or even typical Orthodox Marxist ones. Further analysis is
advisable to link Morin to Foucault’s work on power or Bourdieu’s symbolic
power, and to further consider Frasers critical approaches connecting
capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism (2009) as well as de Sousa Santos’
ecology of knowledges´ (de Sousa Santos 2003b, 2004a).
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The work of Lukes (2005) constitutes a significant attempt to transcend
traditional limitations in the analysis of power: his proposal of power as
tridimensional overcomes the behavioural limitations of more traditional
and simplistic approaches to power, which tend to interpret it only as
the capacity to decide or impose certain decisions on others, or just the
capacity to avoid certain issues. Lukes tries in this way to include and
synthesize the works of Foucault and Bourdieu while also avoiding some
of their pitfalls. Thus, his third dimension of power as ideology, having the
capacity to influence people’s wishes and thoughts, can offer a potent basis
for ecosystemic approaches to change.
`Ecosystem´, as Barco Serrano et al. (2019) signal, is a successful metaphor
which has been gaining relevance in analyzing general entrepreneurship
and particularly social entrepreneurship. We can date back to 1993 the first
use of this term in studies of mainstream business (Moore 1993), and since
then several others have addressed the influence of the specific nature
of the context (or ‘ecosystem’) in which enterprises operate (Amin 2009,
Bacq and Janssen 2011, Baum 2009, Di Domenico, Haugh and Tracey 2010,
Kerlin 2013). More recently we can mention the works of Spigel (2017) and
Lévesque (2016) in relation to the social economy. The term supposes a
significant step forward in increasingly complex models to understand
systemic interactions and dynamics, to the point of including less evident
variables such as cultural norms in recent proposals as explained by Biggeri
et al. (2018). However, as emphasized by Barco Serrano et al. (2019) it still
falls “short of its full potential” and precisely one of its shortcomings is the
absence of a highly significant variable like power, and the way it operates
and flows within the ecosystem. Moreover, this accounts for including other
contextual and intangible elements such as social capital, mutual trust, and
institutional factors that can foster or hinder the emergence of bottom-up
dynamics and organizations”. In this way and in more general terms, this
ecosystem perspective can include sufficient elements to understand and
explain some current trends such as the rise of the far-right in democratic
states, the existence of illiberal states or other developments which seem to
be counter-intuitive if addressed from a less complex perspective and with
an unidimensional definition of power.
This could result in a more nuanced scenario that accounts for the
underpinnings of the degrowth proposal. As Susan Paulson (2017: 427)
explains,degrowth was explicitly conceptualized by a network of thinkers
initially centered in France, among them philosopher André Gorz,” referring
to initiatives “building toward low-impact livelihoods that prioritize well-
being and equity”. This proposal places the above-mentioned contextual
and intangible elements, as well as Lukes’ ideological dimension of power, in
a central position of analysis and among the viable options to address some
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of the current challenges. Indeed, in her analysis of feasible changes, Paulson
(2017: 440), explicitly mentions Gramsci and points out that “historical
crises can destabilize that power, opening transformative possibilities”.
However such possibilities need to incorporate a more nuanced analysis
of power struggles and the barriers against change at play. It requires an
analysis where the inter-relational nature of power is evident and which no
longer implies a simplistic division between elites and the public. However
it should consider the iterative and dialogical relationship between them
and the need to explicitly address the decolonization of “worldviews of
expansionist myths and values” in line with proposals from Boaventura de
Sousa Santos.
Furthermore, the idea of transition is central in degrowth proposals. For
instance, degrowth is linked with the transition towns movement which was
born in the UK around 2004 linked with permaculture and peak oil proposals.
Both proposals also explore the need to address the above-mentioned
power dimensions and simultaneously evoke a similar idea of change akin
to Morin’s metamorphosis. This also overcomes the dichotomy of “evolution
versus revolution” and allows for using the concept of transition without
avoiding the clear role of (the three dimensions of) power and the notion of
struggle which it represents.
Numerous authors (including Borzaga, Chaves, Defourny, Monzón or
Nyssens) agree that economics and business have been the dominant
disciplines in the SE field. Research stemming from these fields has very
effectively explained the economic rationale behind the emergence of
social enterprises, as well as the characteristics, dynamics, and strategies of
these organizations in an uncertain and resource-limited environment and,
to some extent, their role in wider economic systems (Borzaga and Defourny
2001, Nyssens 2006). Sociology has contributed to defining the interplay of
agencies, power relations and relevant notions such as ‘social capital’ (e.g.
Lévesque, Bourque, and Forgues 2001, Roy et al. 2014). Political science
researchers —mostly in Europe— have also studied the emergence and
development of social enterprise and their interaction with policy-making,
given the close contact that these organizations have with European public
administrations at all levels (e.g. Evers 2001, Nicholls and Teasdale 2017,
Pestoff and Hulgård 2016). The burst of the 2008 financial and economic
crisis and the turn towards austerity and overtly neoliberal policy-making
contributed to the advent of a more financial approach to social enterprise
research, as illustrated by the vast body of literature on “social” and “impact
investment” (Clarkin and Cangioni 2016, Nicholls and Daggers 2016 or
Lehner and Nicholls 2014).
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The seed of this paper first emerged during an academic seminar
where the authors were invited to deliver the opening and closing lectures.
Based on the personal experience spanning several decades in the field
of SE research and practice, the combination of two different perspectives
(academic versus consultant approaches) casted new light on issues that
proved to strike a chord with the audience of the seminar, mainly composed
of early career researchers, recent PhD graduates and PhD candidates.
Several salient reflections resulted, stemming from two crucial areas: the
research purpose and its link with society. Namely, the traditional topic
of engaging in meaningful dialogue with stakeholders and ensuring the
transfer of knowledge to society has gained a new sense of urgency in
a transition context: how can stakeholders be involved not only in data
gathering but also in other phases of research, such as the agenda setting,
analysis and interpretation of results, and adaptation to public policies and
practitioners’ tools? Secondly, when we consider the researchers’ active
engagement in their object of study and the agendas for transformation
that each of them carries, how will this impact the research produced?
This text is therefore an attempt to address some of these questions
currently cutting through the professional and human search of many
researchers of current and future generations. To do so, we consider the
ecosystems perspective and the transition context as two positive factors for
developing SE research that contributes to unleashing the transformative
potential of this complex field. This exploratory work seeks to unearth a
promising line of reflection for developing future research in the SE field by
scholars at the beginning of their career. As a conceptual paper, this is done
so mainly based on the authors’ experience as well as through secondary
data analysis.
The basic methodology mobilized is the desk review of secondary data
based on two types of techniques: literature review and document analysis.
The literature review included the analysis of articles and volumes covering
the SE field as well as the work of philosophers and thinkers supporting our
argumentations. Regarding the document analysis, we reviewed the reports
and methodological notes of five major international projects or initiatives,
namely the European EFESEIIS and SE Mapping projects, the global ICSEM
and TIESS initiatives and the most recent ILO project.
Regarding the selection criteria, we applied authors’ proximity to the
process and the team of researchers. The selection was made considering
some of the most significant scientific projects departing from the nine ones
included in the Synthesis Report of the SE Mapping (European Commission
2020). The most recent ILO project was included as a way to reflect the
perspective of a UN-supported project. TIESS was added to this analysis as
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a unique case on a knowledge transfer center combining scientific, practice
and policy-making expertise.
Considering the large amount of material produced in the course of these
projects, we focused on intermediate results reports, final publications, and
internal work documents. Table 1 below offers the basic information about
these initiatives and projects.
Table 1. Projects and initiatives analyzed
Acronym Full title Duration Website
Enabling the Flourishing
and Evolution of Social
Entrepreneurship for Innovative
and Inclusive Societies
2. ICSEM International Comparative Social
Enterprise Models Project 2013-2019
3. ILO
Financial Mechanisms for
Innovative Social and Solidarity
Economy Ecosystems
4. SE
Social enterprises and their
ecosystems in Europe 2018-2020!Qq64ny
Territoires innovants en
économie sociale et solidaire
(Innovative territories in social
and solidarity economy)
Since 2013
The analysis of the five projects and one initiative was conducted
through a basic grid designed to provide insight on how ecosystems
were described and operationalized as well as the position and role
assigned to research, both vis-à-vis social enterprises themselves along
with practitioners and policy makers. Thus, the selection of questions for
analysis is based on the key dimensions which can provide more insights
regarding the notion of SE research within the wider “ecosystems”
perspective developed in the past decade as well as their impact in
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Table 2. Grid for analysis of initiatives
Item for analysis Brief description
a. Goal(s) of the initiative
This question aims to assess the main (research) objective
of the project/initiative. When there are multiple goals,
they are all reflected although the emphasis is on the
idea of ecosystem.
b. Policy background and
context of the initiative
Although it may not be directly mentioned in the
initiative description, it is important to gauge the current
political and policy development environment in order
to understand potential existing notions of ecosystem,
even if implicitly stated in the text.
c. Provided definition of
Sometimes, the initiative provides an explicit definition
of ecosystem while others it describes how the various
elements interact.
d. Governance system of the
The way in which decision-making occured within the
initiative and how coordination flows among the various
agents, including stakeholders.
e. Stakeholders’ participation
in the initiative
Were stakeholders involved in the initiative? Although
a variety of groups can participate in projects there are
different levels of involving them. This question describes
the way in which stakeholders were incorporated into
the project.
f. Main impact at policy and/or
praxis level
This question addresses the impact on policy-making
identified by the project itself. When available it also
considers other unplanned impact although considering
the usual timeframe needed for new policy, such impact
is something observable only in the medium and long
g. Tools for practitioners and/
or policymakers
If the project has any specific outputs aimed at non-
academic stakeholders, which ones are they and how
were they developed?
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EFESEIIS - E  F  E 
S E  I 
I S P (- )
a. Goals of the initiative
The project had the goal of “providing a better understanding of Social
Entrepreneurship” with the mission of fully understanding “the conditions
under which social entrepreneurship starts, develops and can contribute
effectively and efficiently to solving societal challenges in a sustainable
way”4. Its stated objectives were:
To construct an evolutionary theory of Social Entrepreneurship
To identify the features of an “Enabling Eco-System for Social
To identify the “new generation” of social entrepreneurs
To provide advice to stakeholders
b. Policy background and context of the initiative
This is a EU funded project under its Seventh Framework Programme
and it can be included in the increasing number of initiatives in the area of
Social Entrepreneurship. It began in 2014, three years after the launch of
the Social Business Initiative (SBI) by the European Commissionand lasted
until 2016.
c. Provided definition of ecosystem
In their main project paper addressing the concept of SE ecosystems,
Hazenberg et al. (2016) signal that “research has also focused on how
different social enterprise forms emerge within nation states based upon the
differing socio-economic conditions across regions” and that ”differences
can related to differing historical, legal, political, social and economic
structures”. However, one of its most interesting proposals is to deepen the
ecological nature of the metaphor “through the concept of evolutionary
theory, in which social enterprises operate within ecosystems and compete
with other organisms for survival”. Furthermore, they also signal that prior
research has over-simplified “the mechanisms involved in a social system
involving human beings”. This is a major step in making a fuller use of the
metaphor to both analyse different territories at all levels and to provide a
more sophisticated policy instrument to better address the complexity of
real-life situations.
4 All the information related to this project and its results are available at http://www.fp7-
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201RIESISE, 3 (2020) pp. 189-223
Finally, Biggeri et al. (2018) also suggest that interactions go beyond
the local area, that they “should go beyond the relationship between social
enterprises and the locality they serve and embrace all the different parts of
the ecosystem, some of which might not be set in the same locality”.
d. Governance system of the initiative
This research project included partners from the 10 countries in which
the analysis was carried out and three international organizations:
ENSIE - European Network of Social Integration Enterprises
EVPA - European Venture Philanthropy Association
UNIDO - United Nations Industrial Development Organization
e. Stakeholders’ participation in the initiative
As a traditional research project it did not foresee any change in the
traditional roles but it included stakeholders in the governance system
mainly through the inclusion of ENSIE and also EVPA.
f. Main impact at policy and/or praxis level
This project was designed with the aim of producing policy-level impact.
Despite the difficulty in assessing this, it has already been used in the
drafting of the European Commission’s policy brief “How Can Policy Makers
Improve Their Country’s Support To Social Enterprises?”.5
g. Tools for practitioners and/or policymakers
Most outputs of the project can be considered as tools for practitioners
(mostly in the area of advocacy) and for policymakers. It is worth highlighting
the above-mentioned framework proposed by Biggeri et al. (2018) which can
be seen as a sophisticated tool to help policy design and advocacy strategies.
ICSEM - I C S
E M P (-)
a. Goals of the initiative
ICSEM aimed at comparing SE models and their respective
institutionalization processes across the world.6 The project relies on the
participation of researchers from over 50 countries, who contributed with
country-specific and/or field-specific analysis of SE models in addition
to comparative work across world regions. All types of researchers, from
5 See
6 All the information related to this project and its results are available at https://www.iap-
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experienced to early career researchers as well as PhD candidates joined
the project as country partners. All aspects of the project were shared
with participants all along the process, including the scientific goals and
methodology, the coordination procedures and the governance principles.
The project sought to provide an analysis that combined an analytical
approach allowing for a combination of a wide diversity of social enterprise
models together with empirical evidence, through statistical exploitation of
a large international dataset, resulting from a common albeit adapted survey
carried out in 50 countries. The apparent confusion of the SE landscape was
overcome by a two-step research strategy that included: 1) mapping major
SE models to capture the diversity among SE models and 2) capturing the
internal diversity in each SE model (reliance on local researchers’ deep
understanding of their context).
b. Policy background and context of the initiative
Considering the large number of countries covered by this project, the
variety of policy backgrounds go far beyond the scope of this text. That said,
and notwithstanding the unique policy background and context in each
region, the work conducted as part of ICSEM contributed to overcoming the
fragmentation of this knowledge area, therefore creating a common frame
of reference for incipient policy systems aiming to support the development
of social enterprises. Moreover, concrete areas were developed within the
project more specifically, namely work integration social enterprises, and
some geographic regions also generated more in depth analysis such as
Asia, Brazil, Canada and Central and Eastern Europe.
c. Provided definition of ecosystem
From a research methodology standpoint, no definition of SE (or
ecosystem) was imposed or even suggested a priori to participating
researchers. The initial question suggested to local researchers encouraged
them to activate an interpretative attitude in order to reply to the question:
to what extent does the notion of SE make sense in your national context
and with respect to existing “neighbouring” concepts? The issue of grey
zones and blurring barriers among conceptions within the ecosystem was
constantly present. Moreover, instead of trying to capture the huge diversity
of SE at a time, the project relied on the notion of “SE models” which
encompasses categories, types, classes of social enterprises.
d. Governance system of the initiative
A specificity of ICSEM was the nature of its governance system and, particularly,
the various resources mobilized. On the one hand, the central resource is the
work invested by their scientific coordinators and all the individual researchers,
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made on a volunteer basis. The project mobilized a budget initially as part of a
wider research initiative funded by the Belgian Science Policy office that later also
received funding from private foundations. This budget supported the hiring of
a part time project coordinator and the organization of major ICSEM meetings,
including, when possible, research members’ travel expenses. Exceptionally,
it also provided small allowances to some PhD candidates and post-doctoral
researchers willing to link their doctoral or post-doctoral work to the project and
to make a contribution during or after their PhD research.
Researchers interested in joining the research project did not have
to cover all SE models in a given country; on the contrary, intra-national
collaboration among researchers was encouraged from the coordinators.
This resulted in intensive discussions and even collaborations among
researchers interested in similar topics who brought different perspectives
to the table and made complementary contrib utions.
e. Stakeholders’ participation in the initiative
As such, non-academic stakeholders were not directly involved in ICSEM
but the project managed to ignite a worldwide community of academic
stakeholders. It is worth noting, as well, that some of these researchers can
be considered as part-time practitioners and supporters of the SE ecosystem
in their own countries, therefore blurring boundaries at times between non-
academic stakeholders and researchers.
f. Main impact at policy-making and/or praxis level
In addition to the numerous publications, the main impact of ICSEM can
be summarized as threefold. Firstly, three of the four models advanced by
the project (the social business model, the social cooperative model, the
entrepreneurial non-profit model) found strong empirical support in almost
all of the participating countries. Secondly, the work process contributed to
consolidate an international community capable of approaching a complex
study object with a critical and yet focused approach and with a varying
level of influence on the development of the SE ecosystem in the country
(particularly in countries with an nonexistent or nascent SE community).
Thirdly, it offers the first attempt to address the tension between competing
models in less developed ecosystems, where up until recently, policy recipes
were exclusively based on the models proposed by main donors (cooperation
for development agencies, big NGOs and impact investors, for example).
g. Tools for practitioners and/or policy-makers
Two major motivations drove the research design implemented in
ICSEM. Firstly, experts realized that an unifying conceptualization of SE
across the world constitutes an impossible quest. Such realization stems
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from the experience accumulated in several international projects focused
on SE as well the knowledge accumulated within the EMES network.
Secondly, comparative analysis lacks integrated theoretical foundations and
empirical surveys for testing SE typologies within the same country and at
the international level. As signalled above, this can also facilitate resisting
donors’ agendas when developing early stage SE ecosystems.
ILO F - F M  I S
 S E E (SSE) (-)
a. Goals of the initiative
To foster a better understanding of the global ecosystems, i.e. the
relations and interactions between a number of stakeholders favouring
SSE, and the financial mechanism that supports and consolidate them.
b. Policy background and context of the initiative
As stated in the Terms of Reference of the project, “Financial crises,
limited access to affordable credit on the part of SSE organizations and
the commercialization of microcredit all point to the need to transform
financial systems. SSE organizations have difficulty accessing funding which
prevents all stakeholders, including governments from realizing the full
potential of SSE for the creation of decent jobs, among other things (...).
A variety of alternative finance schemes such as community-based saving
schemes, complementary currencies and social impact bonds are playing
an important role in community risk management and local development.
While they often operate best at a local level and on a small scale, these
and other SSE initiatives point to the potential for crafting a more stable and
people-centred monetary ecosystem embodying a far greater plurality of
currencies and financial institutions”.
c. Provided definition of ecosystem
The project used the well-known definition by Ben Spigel as a basis:
“the union of localized cultural outlooks, social networks, investment
capital, universities, and active economic policies that create environments
supportive of innovation-based ventures” (Spigel 2017: 1042).7 However the
research team proposed to go beyond this and to include in the analysis the
“internal and external flows of relevant variables such as information, power,
organization, resources”8 among others and to identify its size “(whether
there is a sufficient number of participants) but also how it is organized:
7 Spigel, B. (2017). The Relational Organization of Entrepreneurial Ecosystems.
Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, 41(1), 49–72.
8 S Barco Serrano, S., Bodini, R., Roy, M., Salvatori, G. (2019) 97.
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whether the flow of information and resources is coherent with the goal of
producing beneficial social impact or, more specifically, in increasing the
capabilities of SSE actors to achieve such impact9. Finally it proposes to
recognize that “ecosystems are not static systems, but constantly in flux”.10
d. Governance system of the initiative
The research project had a two level governance system, one that consisted
of the relations with the “client” (International Labour Organisation, ILO) and
the other which included the relationship between the authors of the report
and the different researchers carrying out the country analysis in the eight
selected countries (Cape Vert, Colombia, Ecuador, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg,
Morocco and the Canadian province of Quebec). It also involved the key
stakeholder organizations in each of the countries at the national level.
For example, they acted as key informants helping to design the final local
research, and were also included in selecting local researchers (some of
them wore both “hats”: researcher and advocate/social entrepreneur), and
they were offered the opportunity to jointly develop a mapping initiative but
it remains unfinished.
e. Stakeholders’ participation in the initiative
Considering the ambitious scope of the research (eight countries and some
of them with the largest SSE ecosystems in the world) the researchers adopted
a pragmatic approach and assessed the different ecosystems by analysing
existing academic and grey material as well as interviews with key stakeholders
and informants in the eight countries and in the international ecosystem. It also
proposed an initial participatory mapping of the actors in some of the countries,
though this desisted due to resource constraints and insufficient engagement.
However it is worth mentioning that this research highlighted the hybrid
role of national researchers, social entrepreneurs and activists, since two
of the national researchers can not be considered full time researchers
but also social entrepreneurs or advocates (Ecuador and Luxembourg).
Furthermore, also some of the international researchers are at the same
time researchers and social entrepreneurs.
f. Main impact at policymaking and/or praxis level
Given the international nature of the ILO, its policy-making impact is yet
to be known since it will necessarily result from their prestige, legitimacy
and influence on one side and, in the case of own political documents, it will
require much more time considering the level of production of SSE related
policy documents from ILO. As for the main findings generating a significant
9 Ibidem
10 Ibidem
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impact, we can highlight two: the counter-intuitive importance of internal
sources of capital over traditional financial products such as credit, and the
crucial role of endogenous development and the polyarchic structure of
g. Tools for practitioners and/or policy-makers
The research produced a series of recommendations, closely related to
the increasing relevance of ecosystems both in descriptive and prescriptive
The importance of having a mix of different financial tools.
Support for internal capitalization.
Role of guarantee schemes.
Strengthening of ecosystems through co-design processes.
Moving beyond finance and legal frameworks.
Need for better data and statistics.
Cultivating the international dimension.
Financial mechanisms need to be designed to cope with complexity.
SE M - S   
  E (-)
a. Goals of the initiative
This version of the EC-funded mapping of SE in 28 Member States and
seven neighboring countries is the second iteration of the initial mapping
completed in 2014. The resulting updated mapping study completed in
2020 focused on six areas:
the historical background and conditions of the emergence of social
the evolution of the concept and the existing national policy and legal
framework for social enterprise;
the scale and characteristics of social enterprise activity;
networks and mutual support mechanisms;
research, education and skills development; and
the resources available to social enterprises.
Although the study does not provide recommendations for future
developments, it provides insights on the existing debate in national
contexts as well as an overview of possible developmental trends.
b. Policy background and context of the initiative
As stated in the foreword of the comparative synthesis report, social
enterprises are “in the spotlight of policy-making” both at EU and national
level. Since the adoption of the SBI in 2011, 16 EU Member States have
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adopted new specific legislation in the field and 11 EU Member States have
created formal strategies or policies for supporting SE development. In
2015, the Council adopted conclusions on promoting the social economy
and a European Action Plan for Social Economy is under way (expected for
autumn 2021).
c. Provided definition of ecosystem
The first mapping update introduced the concept of the ecosystem
describing it as focussing on six features considered important by the
European Commission for supportive policy frameworks for SE. These
features included: national policy and legal frameworks for SE; business
development services and support schemes specifically designed for
social enterprises; networks and mutual support mechanisms; social
impact investment markets; impact measurement and reporting systems;
and marks, labels and certification schemes. This definition emerged
top-down based on the policy priorities of the commissioning party. The
Better Entrepreneurship Policy Tool, jointly developed by the European
Commission and the OECD, added one feature, bringing the number of
relevant features of an enabling policy ecosystem to seven.
The 2020 version of the mapping provides a snapshot of different
traditions and conditions of emergence, the variety of public policies
and diverse legal entities, the institutional frameworks, many hurdles and
obstacles but also new opportunities.
d. Governance system of the initiative
An EU Coordination team was responsible for the conception of the
study and its implementation and management. As for the stakeholders
engagement strategy, the main contact point with the local stakeholders
community was the national researcher participating in the study who
worked closely with one member of the EU Coordination team leading
the stakeholder process. The national researcher was also encouraged
to assemble a stakeholder core group to act as an immediate resource
provider reading drafts, providing new contacts and support throughout
the process. Initially a pool of stakeholders was put together, ranging from
10 up to over 80 stakeholders in some countries. A basic questionnaire was
then distributed aimed at bringing issues to the surface within the ecosystem
that could remain hidden. Lastly, a stakeholder meeting was organized with
10 to 15 participants.
e. Stakeholders’ participation in the initiative
This update included a stakeholders’ engagement strategy aimed
at capturing insights and analysis stemming from various agents within
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national ecosystems in all of the 28 countries where a full report was
produced. Considered mainly a quantitative methodology aimed at
producing facts, figures and examples, mappings have been criticized as
being normative, simplistic and promoting standardization of otherwise
heterogeneous realities. However, none of the EU mapping updates
provides any evaluation or assessment of any framework condition affecting
social enterprises or recommendations about what to do next. Recognising
the current conceptual and methodological limitations in measuring and
mapping SE activity, the study adopts a pragmatic approach to generate
a ‘first map’ based on existing academic and grey material and exchanges
with over 750 stakeholders across Europe.
f. Main impact at policy-making and/or praxis level
The main result of the mapping was the confirmation that social
enterprises, as defined by the SBI, constitute a growing trend across the
covered countries. At the policy level, it confirmed that the first EU-wide
strategy developed to support social enterprises, the SBI, was a decisive
impulse for the field. It also brought to the foreground the key role of public
procurement in the development of the field not only as a means to support
its activity but also as a contribution to the establishment of a new sphere of
interaction with policymakers at all levels.
g. Tools for practitioners and/or policy-makers
The impact of better knowledge of social enterprises and their ecosystems
for policy-making in Europe is summarized in a figure included in the
introduction of the Synthesis report (see Figure 1) and it refers to how updated,
periodic and analytical pictures not only benefit policy-making at the EU and
national levels but it also encourages self-recognition and a stronger identity
for social enterprises and the organizations representing them.
TIESS - T    
  [I T  S
 S E] (-)
a. Goals of the initiative
As stated in its webpage the mission of this innovative initiative is to
contribute to territorial development through knowledge transfer by
equipping SSE organizations so that they can address societal issues in an
innovative way and transform their practices”.11 To our knowledge, this is the
11 “Contribuer au développement territorial par le transfert de connaissances en outillant
les organismes d’économie sociale et solidaire afin qu’ils puissent faire face aux enjeux de
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first institution fully concerned with the transfer of knowledge in relation to
social innovation, aimed and governed by and for SSE organizations.
société de façon innovante et transformer leurs pratiques”, translation by the authors. Available
Figure 1. Impact of better knowledge of social enterprises and their
ecosystems for policy-making in Europe
Source: European Commission, 2020.
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b. Policy background and context of the initiative
The birth of this innovative institution needs to be related to a distinctive
feature of Quebec’s ecosystem: the long standing tradition of social
economy partnership research. Researchers have played a key role in
the development of the ecosystem and the different key institutions and
organizations of the SSE have also played a role not only in the governance
of the partnership but also in collaborating in the research. In this context,
the issue of knowledge transfer with all its challenges and requests acquired
substantial relevance. According to its website, the process was initiated in
2001 and resulted in the creation of TIESS in 2013 with a first assembly with
some 60 SSE organizations and research institutions.
c. Provided definition of ecosystem
The initiative does not provide a detailed definition but from its use we
can derive that they are using mostly it as a system of actors and stakeholders.
For example, they state in one key policy document that “For many years
now, an ecosystem supporting social innovation has been built in Quebec,
in particular by social economy, social finance and local development
d. Governance system of the initiative
TIESS follows a governance which is typical in Quebec. Its board is
composed of 21 voting members, with 14 nominated by their organizations
and seven are elected according to thematic electoral colleges. It also
includes observers, which in this moment hail from two different public
bodies and a highly recognized researcher (currently Prof. Benoît Lévesque).
Besides this board there is a Scientific Council with one representative
member at the board. The most interesting part of this governance is that
it recognizes the increasingly hybrid nature of research and therefore there
are representatives from SSE stakeholders also present in this council.13
e. Stakeholders’ participation in the initiative
As we can deduct from the previous section, various categories of non-
academic stakeholders participate actively both in the governance and in
the work of TIESS. One example is the project regarding evaluation and
impact measurement which included a committee of partners made of
research organizations and SSE actors.
12 Translation by the authors.
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f. Main impact at policy-making and/or praxis level
As stated in one case study14 “TIESS has developed an innovative transfer
approach based on the co-construction of knowledge that recognizes
the complementary nature of academic and practical knowledge to
address societal issues” where “practical knowledge is deemed to be as
significant as research knowledge”.
g.Tools for practitioners and/or policy-makers
This can be considered a toolbox for practitioners and policy-makers
but also for the governance of the entire ecosystem. It does not aim at
advancing research but at transferring it, liaising research and practitioners
and scanning practices and innovation. In doing so, it embodies an
excellent example of the role of research and knowledge in building a more
favourable and resilient ecosystem for SSE. It also shows the hybrid nature
of research and practice and their relation with policy.
The compared analysis of the five initiatives yields some interesting
thoughts with regard to the content of the research and the research
process itself.
Firstly, it becomes apparent that the degree of freedom allowed to
researchers to set the agenda guiding their work tends to vary. On the one
hand, when the commissioning party is external, the assignation process
follows a competitive process to access the funds (whether research
grants or contracts for services) and when there exist previously defined
public research agendas, the margin for innovation from research groups
is limited. On the contrary, researcher-initiated research projects also exist
as exemplified by ICSEM. This option, however, entails ensuring alternative
funding to maintain the core functions of the large project, large amounts of
voluntary work and the need to act toward the common good in the creation
of scientific knowledge. Recent developments in public procurement policy
frameworks, however, could offer some interesting paths for greater margin
for innovation, such as competitive dialogues or innovation partnerships,
for example.
Secondly, the reach of research in terms of informing policy making
processes tends to be larger when the commissioning party is already
a political body or institution (EC or ILO). Indeed, the SE Mapping study
14 The Canadian Federal government funded, within its Social Innovation and Social
Finance Strategy, a series case studies of social innovation in action across Canada on 2018.
The TIESS was one of them. They can be found here: https://www.impactinvestmentforum.
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and the ILO project prove that academic research represents a key
institutionalization factor of social enterprises, particularly in CEE countries
and other countries where a SE ecosystem does not exist. However,
stakeholder involvement remains an under-explored way to increase the
impact of research on society, not only in policy but also in practice.
Thirdly, it becomes apparent from our reduced review that there are
efficient models of reflective and empowering co-construction, such as
Fourthly, though stakeholder involvement in research program has
increased, there is still room for improvement both in tender services and in
calls for proposals in order to hybridize research, i.e. the role of researchers
in agenda setting/policy design, the role of social entrepreneurs and
representative as researchers (as illustrated by the ILO project) and/or the
increase of research capabilities of public actors and SE representative
bodies. Such hybridization has also been initiated with the institutionalisation
of the co-construction of knowledge through the TIESS initiative and through
research engagement in institutions such ILO, the creation of research
committees in SE representative bodies and through formal and informal
fora allowing for interaction between these actors and stakeholders.
Fifthly, there is room for further improvement in terms of horizontal
governance in the three types of key stakeholders: funders (public and
private ones), social entrepreneurs and their representatives bodies and
research bodies. Participation is increasing at project level and in some
specific advisory committees, but we could also envisage cross-participation
in boards and other governing bodies such as the case of TIESS.
In short, there seems to be a balance to strike in terms of scientific and
financial autonomy as well as stakeholder participation and achievable
In terms of scientific challenges for SE research, three seem to emerge
from recent research: to evolve from the anecdotic to the explanatory
when it comes to SE emergence, development and evolution over time; to
visibilize the variety and the impact of SE across activity areas and from a
comparative perspective (with the traditional private sector and the public
sector); to boost the mainstreaming of SE research into academia so it cuts
across different academic disciplines and boundaries.
Transitions have been traditionally tackled in a disconnected manner,
following an activity field approach that considers solutions and strategies
delineating each activity area such as energy, mobility, food, politics,
culture, etc. This “silo approach” has probably contributed to limiting the