Another year and another fabulous Social Enterprise City Festival has come and gone in Plymouth. “We should do this every week” someone said at one event, and I half agree. Showcasing community businesses, co-operatives and social enterprises in our great city doesn’t stop with the end of the festival. Neither does the need to discuss profound social, environmental and economic issues but the week is a highlight of the year and a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on Plymouth’s social enterprise scene.

The very first festival was a half-day affair at Plymouth University in 2010 where we elected the first three official members of Plymouth Social Enterprise Network: Bellmoor Co-op, Groundwork South West and Real Ideas. Sadly, Bellmoor and Groundwork no longer operate but Real Ideas goes from strength-to-strength.

This, then, was the thirteenth festival and the theme was ‘Shake it up – interesting times’. And what times we live in. As if the COVID pandemic wasn’t enough we now face a cost of living and energy crisis; warnings of dire recession; war in Ukraine; national research showing that thousands of social enterprises across the country are at risk; and the ongoing ramifications of Brexit which become increasingly apparent each day. With that rather gloomy context the festival set out to show Plymouth and the world different ways of running businesses. Ways that are greener, fairer, even kinder.

We ended up with over 20 events attended by around 500 people. The activities included a launch at the Athenaeum; a women’s networking event; and a fun social, social enterprise quiz night. The State of Us conference explored economic democracy and community power. There were focus groups on PSEN’s own approach to diversity, values and the environment; a plastics shedding bonanza; Millfields Trust’s AGM; and Plymouth Energy Community’s inspiring change gathering. We saw repairing, making and mending with The Scrapstore; listened to Hospital Radio; and brought and shared at Jarsquad’s events. Climate Clarity ran an environmental business taster and Iridescent Ideas delivered a business advice seminar. And finally, to wrap it all up, WonderZoo curated a wonderfully diverse arts, poetry, music and business event at The Plot.

As the dust floats down and settles on the streets, people and places of Plymouth, what have learned during the festival?

Well, that there are reasons to be optimistic despite the often-despairing outlook we read about, see on our screens and directly experience in our communities.

Optimistic because it was social enterprises and community groups that stepped up during COVID.

Optimistic because as we emerged from the last recession in 2009, we saw a boom in social enterprise start-ups.

Optimistic because of the work and care shown by the great social enterprises and co-ops we saw in action this week.

But this optimism has to be tempered by a need to analyse, contemplate, call out and constructively challenge the prevailing economic orthodoxy that all too often causes the poverty and structural inequalities we encounter in the city. This gets to the heart of the social enterprise and co-operative concept: that we can eclipse the status quo and build that better, more inclusive world through the work of the businesses highlighted last week.

We couldn’t achieve the festival without the help and support of a number of key organizations and people: Firstly, a massive thank you to our amazing PSEN members who ran events this year. Without you we wouldn’t have a network let alone a festival. Your tireless work, tackling social, environmental and community issues and running great businesses is exactly why Plymouth is the UK’s best Social Enterprise City.

And a huge thanks particularly to Matt Grant and Jess Holliland who led the festival sub-committee and who worked so hard to pull this all together in a short space of time. Also on the committee: shout outs for contributions from Amber Leach, Jon Blyth, Ed Whitelaw, Daffne Aguilar and Louise Manico. We are also grateful to the rest of PSEN board of directors who support the festival voluntarily every year.

Thank you to all our sponsors for the cold hard cash that helps us put on the festival:

We are indebted to all the venues, attendees and volunteers who helped at events.

Also, a special thanks and warm welcome to Amerie Rose, PSEN’s new Coordinator and Activator who dived headlong into the festival with alacrity.

Planning begins almost immediately for 2023’s festival where we will be celebrating, considering, challenging and contemplating ten years as the UK’s leading Social Enterprise City and exploring what the next ten years could hold.

Plymouth Social Enterprise Network