Global Shifts conference

Tomorrow I’m off to Global Shifts, a three day social enterprise conference being hosted at RMIT. I’m very glad someone happened to mention it to me last week, just in time for me to register.

I’ve started describing Growstuff, in appropriate circles, as a social enterprise. Lots of people don’t know what the term means, so I’ll just quickly define it: a social enterprise is a business which hopes to achieve a social good, but does so through its business practices rather than the fundraising/donations model that most charities use.

I consider Growstuff to be a social enterprise on several levels. The first is that by helping people grow their own food, we are addressing food insecurity and promoting environmental sustainability. The second is that by aggregating data about people’s food growing activities and releasing it under a Creative Commons license, along with our open source code, we’re freely providing technology to help other people build tools and services for food growers, or to help researchers understand how people are growing food. The third way that Growstuff works as a social enterprise is through our community and development processes: as a non-traditional software project, we offer training/mentoring and a supportive environment for people from non-traditional technology backgrounds or who are marginalised in the technology industry to learn, improve their skills, and take leadership roles.

I’ve been to an uncountable number of tech conferences over the past decade or so, but Global Shifts will be my first social enterprise one. I keep remembering something someone said in an intro session the one time I attended SXSW: “Don’t attend sessions about things you already know. You’ll only sit there being annoyed they’re not covering your favourite topics, and thinking you could do better. Instead, go to sessions about things you know nothing about.” Some of the best conferences I’ve been to have been the ones where I’m stepping outside my usual field — I’m thinking especially about the museum/library/archive events and digital humanities “THATCamps” I attended in 2010-2011 — and I’m hoping that Global Shifts is going to have the same effect: lots of new subjects to fill my brain, and very few where I doze off because I’ve heard it all before.

Here are some of the sessions I’m hoping to attend:

Wednesday

  • Developing your social enterprise idea to a workable model — 2 hour workshop, hoping it will be very useful, but slightly worried that we’ve already advanced beyond it. On the other hand, I suspect the other main contender in this timeslot, “B Corporations (what, why, how?)” will be covering material I definitely know from having pored over their website over the last week or two.
  • Structuring a social enterprise – what are the options? — 2 hour workshop, and I’m very interested in this, because this is one of the next steps for Growstuff.

Thursday

  • Measuring Impact — not the obvious choice (that would be “Paddock to plate, food is leading the revolution”) but another Growstuff person will most likely be attending that one, so we’ll each take notes and swap info afterwards.
  • Making Change: If it’s so good, why aren’t more people doing it? — another one that’s on against a green/environmental session, but I’m planning the same note-swapping deal in this session too. I actually think this session might be useful for insight into why people might not want to use our stuff.
  • SOCIAL DRAGON’S DEN: Real projects pitch to real investors — I want to watch other social enterprises pitching their ideas, and see how they’re doing it — and how we can do it. Not that we’re pitching to investors, but it’s good to be able to explain our project in a compelling way to all sorts of people.

Friday

  • State of Australia — I’ll just quote the description and you’ll see why this is so interesting to me: “What structural supports are in place to get social enterprises up and running successfully? Who and what is available to back-up your start-up? Where do you go when you need support, guidance, direction or simple good advice?” Yes please.
  • Structuring success — this is a session about co-ops, B-Corporations, and other alternative governance models. I actually think this might be more interesting than the B-Corp workshop on Wednesday, since it presents a wider range of options.
  • Leadership and people: how to create a movement — not super psyched by this (suspect it might be a bit Social Media 101) but it looks way more interesting than the alternative (“Can big business save the world?”) so I’ll probably go to it anyway.

So, that’s my plan for Global Shifts. I’ll probably be tweeting from there (hashtag #globalshifts). If anyone reading this is attending and wants to meet up, drop me a line.