Dr. Narayan Gopalkrishnan On The Growing Opportunities For Social Enterprise In Far North Queensland


Dr Narayan Gopalkrishnan is the Course Coordinator of the Bachelor of Social Work course and is a Fellow of the Cairns Institute at James Cook University, Australia. Narayan has worked for over thirty-five years in Australia and overseas in universities, NGOs and the private sector and has held senior leading roles in research and sector development.

Narayan brings together his background in business and in community development to his work in Social Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise. He is one of the founders and currently the Founding Chair of SENT [Social Enterprise Network for the Tropics], a network based in Cairns that promotes the idea that social enterprises and social entrepreneurship can lead to change that can impact positively on many of the issues and challenges that exist across the Tropics. Narayan has also worked extensively supporting social enterprise in South Asia and South East Asia.


Narayan discusses the growing momentum of social entrepreneurship in Queensland, as a strong way to tackle some of our pressing social and environmental issues, as well as providing insights to help the sector develop further.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to work in the social enterprise sector?

[Narayan Gopalkrishnan] - I have a background in business as well as in the human services. Over the last few years I have been trying to bring those two areas closer and closer together and social enterprise presents itself as a much more humane option of working with people using business principles and yet keeping the primacy of social and cultural and ecological objectives. So that's why I've been focussing on this area over the last few years and looking at opportunities to actually build the social enterprises and support social enterprises across northern Queensland.

As Chair of the Social Enterprise Network for the Tropics, I'm curious to hear a little bit more about the network itself and the progress and development of the social enterprise movement in Far North Queensland.

I started out as a practitioner of community development working in very remote parts of India, running enterprises myself. So we had micro credit organisations. We had a number of income generation projects, which basically were self sustaining. Now, over the years after moving to Australia, I've been thinking about how, especially in regional areas like where I am now, (which is in Cairns), the homeless could be supported more. So on my sabbatical I travelled across to South Asia and Southeast Asia and worked for a number of organisations in these areas as to how social enterprises were being formed in those areas and what was happening with that. Based on that, I came back to Australia and in the beginning of 2018 we had a couple of round tables for the key stakeholders from Local Government, from State Government, from NGOs, and a few corporate organisations came together and we discussed what is the potential for social enterprise in the Far North of Queensland.

One of the biggest things was buy in, and we wanted to make this something that everybody in the region was interested in and make sure that it was something that people were interested in. In July last year, we organised a public forum. We had people like Cheryl Kernot come up from Sydney to present about social enterprise because Cheryl, after her career as a the Democrat senator went on to a lot of work in social enterprise and with very important organisations around social enterprise. So she came up and presented but we spent half of that time as a world cafe. Everybody from the sector started discussing what was the best way that we could actually further the cause of social enterprise. And the common statement that came up was we needed to form a network that would support each other. Based on that we sent out an expression of interest to everybody in the sector, both corporate community, government, academics and from the steering committee on that and launched the social enterprise network in November of last year at the Cairns Regional Council’s, Tropical North Queensland Innovation Awards.

And since then we've been very active and we've organised three forums. We are looking at a whole range of ideas around the training, advocacy, around education and we formed some very significant collaborations. We are engaging with the Queensland Social Enterprise Council and with Social Traders. The other unit with JCU has been very supportive of us, but also engaging with CQU, which is the Central Queensland University to look at different ways in which we could build social enterprise across this area. And in Far North Queensland, we’ve basically taken a grassroots approach, which is starting on the bottom up, which is when people express the needs themselves, then we start focussing on how we can support those needs. So our basic work would be to work across Far North Queensland and in time we'd be looking at working with organisations in the partner organisations in the Pacific Island nations as well as in Southeast Asia. The main committee consists of people from JCU, from local government, from state government, from social enterprises themselves, and also a range of other stakeholders who want to support social enterprise.

It's fantastic to see that growing momentum up there Narayan.

As lecturer at James Cook University, what opportunities do you see for tertiary institutions to support development of the sector? Obviously you’re taking an active part in the forming of SENT, but what other ways do you see?

I'll come in from the point of view of regional areas. I think for regional areas there is particular significance because we have a lot of issues that need very innovative solutions to emerge from that. So one of the things that universities can do is do research for purpose that involves the community. So participatory research with social enterprises, participatory research with communities in terms of drilling down and with a lot of the surveys and other material that is being gathered by government at this point in time. Much of it is at that upper layer, which is numbers, which is types. But what universities can particularly do is drill down into place-based research, which is for Far North Queensland, what are the kinds of barriers that are specific to the region and what are the kinds of things that local organisations as well as state level organisations can do to actually build on social enterprises in regional, rural and regional areas in particular?

So that idea of localisation of decision making, localisation of information and locally based solutions are really important.

The second thing is cross disciplinary work. I have worked very closely with people from the business faculty, people from the information technology area, people from the creative media. You'd be amazed at how much people from the creative media have been able to support the work of social enterprise because they, their students, for example, designed our website, designed our logo, enabled us to take photographs that are quite good. So those of you who go to our website, much of the work has been done by creative media students.

There's a lot of opportunity to get out of our traditional silos and work across disciplines in this field of social enterprise because it brings together ideas of innovation. It brings together ideas of social responsibility. It brings together ideas of environmental responsibility as well as business principles.

So all of those kinds of cross silo discussions and collaborations are also possible also across locations. For example, the problems that we face are very close to some of the problems that are faced in the Pacific Island nations as well as some of those faced in South Asia. And I think a lot of collaborations can be helped by, for example, JCU has campuses here as well as in Singapore, so they can work together on dealing with these kinds of solutions. The third is innovation because a lot of the social enterprise area in the future is going to be about innovative ways of tackling traditional problems. Complex problems require complex solutions and innovation is one way and technology is one way that they can be tackled.

So totally universities can play a key part in bringing together different parts of their areas of technology or science which can help in terms of developing innovative solutions. When you think about it, the ways in which we work are changing very rapidly and social enterprises would provide new ways of working that are things of the future. Then, of course, boarding networks, so that's one of the things that I do is also the campus here at JCU has been very supportive of us, so they provide meeting spaces, provide forum spaces, they provide a whole range of support including website support and so on. However, there's also opportunity for things like providing incubation facilities for new and emerging social enterprises. So for example, we've got a new innovation centre coming up by next year, which is a very big $30 million project and I'm quite convinced that we will be able to embed social enterprises within that as one of the hubs and be able to provide support to social enterprises day.

Another area is education itself, because I think a lot of these support social enterprises and entrepreneurs need is in terms of up scaling up, training, training and short courses, also I think students, especially the students from our business faculty as well as students from the human services can do with a lot more upskilling in the area of social enterprise. So certainly universities can play a part there and they can connect to that sense of people wanting to make productive change.

A lot of young people nowadays, because of their exposure to social issues, of climate change, are looking to solutions, looking for purpose. And I think universities can play a key part there.

And finally I think advocacy is very important in this area, that advocacy to government, advocacy to the community, to the media that the media gets to understand what social enterprises are and also in their own internal systems. I think universities are probably big buyers in many of the regional areas, so things like social procurement and ideas of embedding the sort of integrated approaches to circular economies. All of these are ideas that certainly universities can do.


You made some really strong points there Narayan and particularly talking about that place-based approach, I'm curious to hear a little bit more about where you see the regional Australian communities struggling the most and how you believe social enterprise can best help in tackling some of those issues.

Particularly in Far North Queensland, we have quite a unique set of issues and at one level you can see all of them as opportunities because you know the old paradigm of your problems are your opportunities, but when you think about it, we have scattered populations across Queensland, we don't have the same metropolitan kind of processes that happen in Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne where there are significant populations and social enterprises can function quite easily and be set up relatively easily, (not underestimating the difficulty), but it's certainly not the same as up here.

We have a problem with urban migration where a lot of the people from the smaller communities, from the tablelands, from the communities up north where we have lots Indigenous communities, are slowly leaving and going into metropolitan towns. So that's another, especially young people.

A general issue with employment or lack of employment, lack of purpose often because of lack of employment, the necessary skill sets needed. We have a lot of natural resources.

One of the major reasons why I'm in Cairns, is the absolute natural beauty of the place that we are based in, but it's also a very fragile environment. It's an environment where pollution has huge impacts. Agricultural runoff has huge impacts on a whole range of issues that are impacting on the natural resources that we have.

So the notion of looking for new ways by which we can tackle some of these things; circular economies, all things that we have to think about. Also we lack a lot of the technology and innovation solutions. So these are some of the problems that may be seen now, but each one of them in their own way are opportunities for me doing things differently.

Some of the changes I think are really important is the idea of much more intensive collaboration and brainstorming and the meeting of minds. I think it's much more with the younger people in our areas where to enable them to come up with possible solutions and work through those solutions. Because I'm really positive about the young people in schools. The young people are coming into the university. Not all of them come into degrees like ours because social work tends to attract the more mature group of students. But nevertheless, when I go to the schools and I talk to young people, I think a lot of them want to see productive change. And I think there's an area where a lot of work needs to happen to enable them to give them the opportunities to actually turn their desire into practise and provide the structures that will enable them to change some of the things around them.


I'm curious to hear a little bit more about where you see the regional Australian communities struggling the most and how you believe social enterprise can best help in tackling some of those issues. [Continued…]

So both at schools and universities, I think there's enormous opportunities in the regional areas to make a difference. Second is the idea of focussing on the self sustaining systems. So we need to be doing much more in terms of actually planning for our areas, using ideas of inability, using ideas of sustainable economies and reducing the wastage out of the systems that we have. It's a fairly closed system we have. But the closed system includes the oceans, it includes the land, it includes the forest, the Daintree that we have, and within that closed system we have to really think constructively in terms of how we can make for productive change and bringing in ideas that involve people, that involve technology, and the different ways in which we can tackle the same problems in new ways.

Another issue is, a lot of the social enterprises particularly that we have in these areas are in the smaller scale and are embedded often within community organisations and are not investment ready. So a lot of the support that they could get would be things like grant funding that particularly focusses on developing sustainability. Rather than just doing something, it's about doing something for purpose, doing something in a way that will actually enable whatever kind of project to become self sustaining in the longer period of time. And remembering that social enterprises have a fairly long period of getting to that level of maturity. It's not two or three years. It's much longer than that. So that funding actually has to be structured in such a way that it can start out as pure funding and then slowly start moving towards ways in which those particular projects can be self sustainable.

I'm not sure about all of Australia, but certainly I think in regions like Far North Queensland, we need to align ourselves much more with international ways in which they are tackling problems. So for example, the United Nations has the Sustainability Development Goals. The SDGs are very, very important for Pacific Island nations and South Asia, Southeast Asia. I think we don't emphasise targeting and working towards these SDGs enough. Social enterprises can play a key role in actually working towards that. Just yesterday I was having a discussion with a member of parliament from Fiji and when I was talking about this sort of alignment, he was saying this is absolutely a very important aspect of social enterprise, which would address the issue then. So he was inviting me to come to Fiji and talk to some of the key people in Fiji about how we could actually align that. I think in our regional areas too, these international standards and ways of doing things is something that we could also align ourselves with much more. We do a bit of that. And certainly JCU does, but I think there's much more of that that could be done.

What advice would you give directly to the social entrepreneurs in your area who are working hard to tackle some of these local issues?

Well the first one is a modification of what real estate people say, ‘location, location, location’. I would say it's connection, connection, connection. I have come to realise that any form of business or the human services, the amount of difference we make when we start connecting both formally and informally with people, and the amount of synergies that you can generate out of that is absolutely astonishing.

The first point is that you must network, you must connect. You are not a person by yourself.

The idea that social enterprise has a shared mission, the idea that social enterprise is a common purpose. It's something that a number of well meaning people who want to make a difference and working towards needs to be much more embedded within us. So it's no longer the idea of ‘just my project and what I'm going to be doing’, but it's about a common shared mission and a common shared purpose, which can then be developed into networks, which don't have to be formal networks, even informal groups of people talking to each other, building relationships, developing new approaches, even in chat rooms and other virtual ways of connecting to each other. Each of these will provide important opportunities for people to come together. And the sum of the groups of people is always much more than the individuals.

The two or three people coming together will definitely come out to much more than what each one of us can do by ourselves.

I don't believe that I would have got anywhere with developing and working around a social enterprise if I had stayed within my traditional silo and within my traditional ideas of what I should be doing, compared to what happened in terms of the broad alignments that we made, the broad connections we were able to make.

The second thing I think is a question of learning, because the world is changing extraordinarily fast and the notion of work, the notion of enterprise, the notion of a social group, all of these are changing so fast.

Keeping that idea of responding to change, that idea of preempting some of the changes that are happening, the idea of being nimble on your feet in terms of the future, is extraordinarily important at this point in time.

And so certainly the idea of learning all the time has to be central to every social entrepreneur or agency.

The third thing is the idea that simplistic thinking has to be left behind, because while your project itself may have a single focus, it's very important to understand that we have complex problems. These problems are integrated with each other and impact on each other. Complex solutions to complex problems are very important and often have got much more benefits coming out of these kinds of complex solutions than these single point kind of solutions.

We tend to get stuck very easily into that single point solution saying, ‘okay, there's the plastic waste. Let me get that plastic waste back and turn it into a product.’ And that's the end of that. But that doesn't, because often there are a lot of areas around that which could have been incorporated into that project, and you could have had much more complex and much more sophisticated response that would be much more effective than that single point kind of approach.

I think the notion of advocating for the sector is really, really important. The idea that we have to start thinking about how we can support each other and how the ideas of hierarchies, the ideas of a collaboration based on who's up, who's above and who's below; I think we need to get past that.

We are in a much more nonhierarchical society. And I think the notion of partnership is extraordinarily important, that we actually see ourselves as partners with each other. And think of even going back to the old community development notions of embodying each other, helping to support each other and work forward from there.

That's some great advice Narayan. To wrap up then, can you please share some inspiring projects that you're aware of that are creating some great positive social impact?

I'll talk about Far North Queensland, but there's some beautiful ones across the country and across the world. One of the areas I’ve worked in quite intensively in the past, particularly for the last few years, has been homelessness, as to how do we tackle homelessness in a way that is sustainable? And it's interesting that there are newer and newer ways that people are developing solutions to the problems of homelessness. For example, one of the research projects I'm doing is looking at crisis housing up in the Tablelands region. The Tablelands region is a bit more isolated than Cairns. It has a scattered population. It has a significant Indigenous population. It has lots of issues around people being homeless. For a number of reasons including mental health, disability, including a whole range of problems that exist there. Within the Tablelands region itself, there are at least two organisations; the Mareeba Community Housing Company which runs a real estate agent, which is a social enterprise, which involves transitional housing, which involves affordable housing. There's also the Ngoonbi Housing Corporation, which has social housing, private housing and disability support and all that they do in ways that the processes enable them to keep the project with the whole project going. So it's actually self funded through that kind of work they're doing. Homelessness; I think there's enormous opportunities and I'm hoping the project that I'm doing now, some of the outcomes of that will be the development of further social enterprises in the space.

Other projects include a brand new one that Centacare Far North Queensland has started. It is an up cycling project where they are taking household and commercial goods and recycling them, upcycling them. New products are coming from the old products. But in the process besides cutting down on waste in the region, they're also focusing particularly on refugees who often don't have the language but have the skills, so they're actually developing those skills from what they have and enabling them to be able to be self sufficient through that process.

There's also products where technology is being used. For example, Envizion uses virtual reality as a way of getting young people in the communities to start thinking about opportunities in the mining sector, in the health industry, in agriculture, in construction. Using the virtual reality bus, they are able to go into communities and enable young people directly through virtual reality to experience and see what it feels like to actually work in those environments, which is great. It's a really nice way of people having the courage to step out of the comfort zone into these particular areas.

Health Services is another prime opportunity here. And we have organisations like a very new one, which is a social enterprise is the Couch Wellness Centre, which supports people who live with cancer in Far North Queensland. In Far North Queensland we had very little support for people with cancer, who survived cancer or are living with cancer, until about three or four years ago when the new oncology unit was built in the hospital. And Couch Wellness provides support to them once they leave the hospital, even while they're still in the hospital, in terms of providing a whole range of services. It goes through the medical services, so it's a paid service, but it's a affordable service. Similar is Wuchopperen Health Services, which provides affordable health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. I get them to come in every year to talk to my students in the community that look in class about the work that they do. So there's lots of those, that kind of work and there's lots of opportunity in that kind of work, especially with the NDIS coming in.

We have a whole range of really good services around cleaning such as Clean Care. I've been involved with them for a bit of time. We've got Bama Services, we've got Green Care, which is the gardening services, the whole range of those kinds of products and organisations too. And of course enormous opportunities in dealing with waste. We've got corporate companies coming in to deal with some of the plastic recycling. Some of it is in the for profit zone, but one of the things for the future is going to be many more social enterprises that are embedded within that sustainability framework. Within that recycling, tackling waste, dealing with all the system wastage that happens in this region. Even with the sugarcane waste there’s going to be lots of interesting things happening in this region.


You can contact Narayan on LinkedIn. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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