A new national consortium of co-operative development workers is proposing a to pilot a wave of co-operative incubators around the UK, following a research project by SCS. They believe that the mix of affordable workspace for social entrepreneurs, linked to a local network of technical and financial support, could be an effective model for growing a new generation of community owned businesses.
SCS carried out the study as part of a Bristol University programme, in order to identify the conditions for more business support aimed at enterprises that are managed democratically by employees and other stakeholders, and are run in accordance with a policy of sustainability of community development. Despite recent interest in social enterprise across the country, Co-operatives UK found in 2016 that specialised support services were in steep decline – and had been for several years.
Drawing on examples from Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Sheffield and Taunton, SCS found that a key part of reversing this trend would be a new approach to business incubation. “Grant funding for social enterprise hasn’t encouraged incubators, and grant funding for incubation hasn’t benefited social enterprises. What we need now is fully financed incubators in which the tenants have a diverse range of business ideas but share co-operative values and work together in co-operative ways; supported by staff that are actively engaged in bringing together talented people with good ideas and networks of ethical investors,” said Alex Lawrie, the author of the report.
The proposal is being actively investigated by The Development Co-operative, a new national consortium of co-operative development specialists. They are looking for groups and experienced individuals that are interested in starting new co-operative incubators; with a critical mass of projects, the Development Co-operative can start working with the growing number of social investors to help them get off to the best possible start. Interest from all over the UK is encouraged, and by projects at any stage of development.
Somerset Co-operative Services already manages a hot desking hub for co-operators at 10 East Reach in Taunton, where the new social enterprises taking shape include an urban farming collective, the UK’s first co-operative train operating company and a community business developing tram systems. A second incubator is planned for nearby Wiveliscombe, taking over complex of small offices developed for sole traders. “It’s very important that as well as helping micro-businesses, an incubator enables good ideas to scale up – to the point where they outgrow the incubator. We can add value to existing business premises by adding high quality advice and training, and by encouraging more mutual aid and use of shared online services.”