I recently stumbled across a case study of a social entrepreneur who fixed a problem in the energy market. Energy suppliers were colluding to fix the market and charging over the odds for fuel in winter, straining household budgets and pushing people into fuel poverty. The entrepreneur responded by devising a fund that would buy fuel in bulk when the price was low, store it and sell it for a fair price in winter, when rates were artificially high. Facing an initial lack of interest from potential investors, he started with £2,000 of his own savings, but when the project proved popular he was able to recruit more subscribers, and grew the fund to over six times that value. His efforts saved people in his local area about 35% on their energy bills.
One of the partners describes the programme’s aim as being to “get people to quit their jobs and start social ventures”, which turned out to be exactly the effect it had on me.
You could be forgiven for thinking it’s a new case study – but it’s not. That social entrepreneur was William Shipley – founder of the RSA – and his Fuel Scheme was launched in Northampton in 1751. Shipley’s success with his fund is credited with giving him the confidence to found the RSA three years later, with a wider remit to encourage projects and inventions for the public good.
Over 250 years later, the RSA has evolved and responded to the 21st century world, but I think it still shares Shipley’s value for early-stage innovations that solve real problems. For the last few years I’ve been able to contribute to the RSA’s modern-day mission from the inside, while working on projects in the Action & Research Centre. I enjoyed the variety; from researching how teams could remain innovative while under resource constraints, to running a micro-funding scheme for environmental activists, to even encouraging cab drivers to adopt more fuel-efficient driving behaviour.
We’re influenced by the idea of being a ‘lean startup’ and are iteratively developing and testing different approaches to overcoming these barriers as quickly and cheaply as we can
Earlier this year Bethnal Green Ventures, an accelerator programme for technology startups working on “things that matter”, called for business proposals. One of the partners describes the programme’s aim as being to “get people to quit their jobs and start social ventures”, which turned out to be exactly the effect it had on me… Working with a friend, we applied with an idea for a digital service that would encourage homeowners to invest in their home’s energy efficiency. We were accepted on the programme, and with the promise of their support (in the form of cash investment, access to their network of mentors, and office space at Google’s Campus) I evolved from being an employee, into a Fellow, of the RSA.
Though the energy business is dramatically different to Shipley’s time, fuel poverty is still a problem and market-fixing isn’t unheard of. Our fledgling idea, Homely, provides personal and unbiased information on measures that improve a home’s energy efficiency. The social benefits of greater efficiency are reduced fuel poverty, lower levels of illness due to under-heated homes (and the associated cost to NHS), as well as cutting our collective greenhouse gas emissions. Though the benefits are attractive to most people, there are barriers that get in the way: the high cost of some of the possible measures, lack of awareness about what’s right for each home, and the inertia that comes with any change that involves some hassle. Government schemes like the Green Deal will make warm homes more affordable – but may not do much to resolve other barriers.
The RSA approach also has a valuable ‘incubation effect’ on its staff, giving people like me the confidence, access to networks and experience to begin new initiatives of their own.
As we develop Homely, we’re influenced by the idea of being a ‘lean startup‘ and are iteratively developing and testing different approaches to overcoming these barriers as quickly and cheaply as we can. Our current hypothesis is that there’s a need for a trusted intermediary between homeowners and the companies that provide energy efficiency measures – and that homeowners are more likely to trust and act on energy efficiency advice from someone similar to themselves. To that end, we’re providing personal and tailored advice on warm homes (and lower energy bills) through the Homely website. In practice this means we’re interviewing people from a wide range of homes who’ve already taken steps to make them more efficient – do drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org if this describes you!
Shipley established the RSA to incentivise and incubate innovation for the public good. Over the years, the organisation’s approach has included premiums, grand (and small) projects, networks and published ideas. But I suggest that it also has a valuable ‘incubation effect’ on its staff, giving people like me the confidence, access to networks and experience to begin new initiatives of their own.
Jamie Young is co-founder of Homely, a startup that provides homeowners with relevant, personal and unbiased advice to help them warm up their home. Before starting Homely he worked for the RSA, researching projects on behaviour change and innovation, and prior to that worked as an engineer. Twitter: @dt99jay. Email: email@example.com.