Create Meaningful Sustainable Development Outcomes Through Innovation


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There has been significant progress over the last two decades in Silicon Valley that has led to innovations even for the most everyday needs. However, in the face of some of the great challenges we face around the world, we have not been able to keep up. We have not been able to drive change and keep track of progress so quickly.

Setting the Sustainable Development Goals in 2017 was an important step. But, as we all know, it’s been six years and we’re not on the right track. We are falling short on many of the goals. Experts talk about the $ 2 trillion in annual funding gap needed to work toward the sustainable development agenda, and more funding is certainly needed. But one element we do not focus on enough is the quality of the solutions that can generate more efficient results for the investments made. We will not close the gap with money, but with innovation. The goal should not be to deploy as much as possible, but to learn as quickly as possible. Companies committed to identifying and scaling up sustainable development solutions can do so by implementing four basic principles of innovation:

1. Think big

In the sustainable development sector, teams tend to think in terms of limitations. Nonprofit leaders would discuss how much budget is available, the number of volunteers supporting a program, and a limited time frame. They would ask, what can we do about it? Over the last five years of advising businesses, I’ve found that social entrepreneurs and sustainability teams think the same way. For meaningful social and environmental innovation to occur, firms must shift their approaches to planning, from constraint-based planning to needs-based planning. The discussion could be, instead, what can we do to move the needle of the problem and how can we scale to make a difference in the depth of impact that will make an even bigger difference?

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2. Start small

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

Too often we think too small and start too big. For example, nonprofits receive a grant, start a program, and are responsible for getting results. Consequently, delivery pressure does not give the organization much time to experiment and find the best solutions. One of the key benefits of starting small is that you can experiment quickly, take more risks, and learn economically. When we plan for impact, chances are we end up doing extensive planning, meetings, and research. During this period, we would be accumulating significant risk and spending a considerable amount of time and money. Instead, we could look at how to overcome the risks in advance. Without devoting so much time to planning in detail, we would put ourselves in the field and try different variations of our strategies for each intervention.

Based on the scientific method, the faster you can go through the innovation cycle, the faster you will innovate. Therefore, the focus should be on the iteration speed. Not to do things perfectly. A necessary change at this point is: to aim perfectly at the speed with which we can go through this cycle.

3. Including the envelope give

Over the past 30 years, we have created slow but steady initiatives on some of the 17 goals, such as access to clean water, electricity, and sanitation. In my time working in the space of sustainable development, 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 dependency on aid between communities and reinforce paternalistic narratives. For example, I have felt that it is difficult to do better than helping poor people to achieve the minimum of decent living conditions because they live in remote areas and therefore it is difficult to access. This remains true if we think of sustainable development as a donation rather than an inclusion. 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 offering companies new consumer markets and supplier bases.

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4. Collaborate

In most cases, companies will not have the knowledge to design and deliver an effective social impact strategy. This is especially the case for small and medium enterprises, but also for large companies and large corporations.

There is an often overlooked opportunity to work hand-in-hand with impact-focused local organizations, such as nonprofits and social enterprises. Finding the right partner to guide, advise or execute a company’s social impact programs will allow for two results:

  • Responsible impact: Relying on the experience of a social or non-profit enterprise enables companies to support communities effectively. Impact partners should be able to demonstrate the extent of the impact produced along the way through quarterly and annual impact reports.
  • Positive Partnership: There is nothing in today’s business that provides so many economic and social benefits, at so many levels, to so many stakeholders, such as a strategic partnership with an impact organization. Unless you run a large company with the strength of skills and resources to deliver an impact-based program with the degree of experience of a specialized nonprofit organization; Establishing partnerships with nonprofits is your best bet.

These principles are a good start to drive the social impact of a company and its contributions to the sustainable development agenda. Other questions to think about are: How exactly will you communicate the impact of your business to your customers? How will you link the mission and vision of your company with your social impact goals? Will it be based on a storytelling strategy? How will you ensure that your impact efforts resonate with the different groups in your audience?

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