Innovating for Sustainable Development

There has been significant progress over the last two decades in Silicon Valley resulting in innovations even for the most mundane needs. Yet in tackling some of the big challenges we face around the world, we have not been able to keep up. We haven’t been able to drive change and track progress nearly as fast.

Setting the Sustainable Development Goals back in 2017 was an important move. But as we all know we’re six years in and we’re not on track. We’re falling short on many of the goals. Specialists talk about the two to three trillion dollars annual gap in funding that’s needed to work toward the sustainable development agenda and certainly, more funding is necessary. But an element we don’t focus on enough is the quality of solutions that can create more efficient results for the investments made. We’re not going to close the gap with money, but with innovation. The goal should not be to deploy as much as possible, but rather to learn as quickly as possible. Companies committed to identifying and scaling sustainable development solutions can do this by implementing four core innovation principles:

1. Think big

In the sustainable development sector, teams tend to think based on constraints. Nonprofit leaders would discuss how much budget is available, the number of volunteers supporting a program and a time-limited framework. They’d ask themselves, what can we do with that? Over the past five years of advising companies, I’ve found social entrepreneurs and sustainability teams think similarly. For meaningful social and environmental innovation to happen, companies must shift planning approaches, from constraints-based to needs-based planning. The discussion could instead be, what can we do that would move the needle on the problem and how can we scale to make a difference into the depth of impact that will make an even greater difference?

2. Start small

Even though it may seem counterintuitive, It’s important to think big but also to start small.

Too often we think too small and we start too big. For example, nonprofits receive a grant, get a program started and they’re held accountable to start delivering results. Consequently, the pressure of delivering doesn’t give the organization much time to experiment and figure out the best solutions. A key benefit of starting small is that you can quickly experiment, take more risks and learn cheaply. When planning for impact, we’d most likely end up doing extensive planning, meetings and research. Over that period, we’d be building up significant risk and spending considerable amounts of time and money. Instead, we could look at how to overcome risks in advance. Without having spent so much time planning in detail, we would get into the field and test different variations of our strategies for each intervention.

Based on the scientific method, the faster you can go around the innovation cycle, the faster you’re going to innovate. Therefore the focus should be on the speed of iteration. Not on doing things perfectly. A necessary shift at this point is: from aiming at perfection to how fast we can go through this cycle.

3. Including over giving

Over the last 30 years, we’ve built slow but steady initiatives on some of the 17 goals including access to clean water, electricity and sanitation. In my time working in the sustainable development space, I have witnessed the inadequacies of corporate social responsibility, charity and social business to address the root cause of major development challenges such as poverty. These approaches often create aid dependency among communities and reinforce patronizing narratives. For instance, I have heard that it’s hard to do better than helping poor people reach the bare minimum of decent living conditions because they live in remote areas, therefore it’s hard to access them. This remains true if we’re thinking of sustainable development as giving instead of including. Inclusive business models offer a solution that engages the poor as members of the formal economy. This allows people to access markets, goods, services and job opportunities while giving businesses new consumer markets and supplier bases.

4. Partner up

In most cases, companies won’t have the know-how to design and deliver an effective social impact strategy. This is particularly the case for small- and medium-sized businesses, but also for large companies and major corporations.

There’s an often-overlooked opportunity in working hand in hand with local, specialized impact-focused organizations including nonprofit organizations and social enterprises. Finding the right partner to guide, advise on or execute a company’s social impact programs will allow for two outcomes:

  • Accountable impact: Relying on the expertise of a nonprofit or social enterprise allows companies to support communities in effective ways. Impact partners should be able to evidence the extent of the impact made along the way using quarterly and annual impact reports.
  • Positive association: There is nothing in business today that provides as much economic and social benefit, on as many levels, to as many stakeholders, as a strategic partnership with an impact organization. Unless you run a large company with the skill force and resources to deliver an impact-driven program to the degree of expertise of a specialized nonprofit; establishing partnerships with nonprofits is your best bet.

These principles are a good start to fueling up a company’s social impact and its contributions to the sustainable development agenda. Other questions to reflect upon are: how exactly will you communicate your company’s impact to your customers? How will you link your company’s mission and vision to your social impact goals? Will it be based on a story-telling strategy? How will you make sure your impact efforts resonate with different groups within your audience?

Original publication available here.