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Creating meaningful results for sustainable development through innovation

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Significant progress has been made in Silicon Valley over the past two decades, leading to innovations for even the most mundane needs. But in tackling some of the major challenges we face globally, we have been unable to keep up. We haven’t been able to drive change and track progress nearly as quickly.

Setting the Sustainable Development Goals in 2017 was an important step. But as we all know we are six years later and we are not on the right track† We miss many of the goals. Specialists talk about the annual gap of two to three trillion dollars in funding needed to work on the sustainable development agenda and certainly more funding is needed. But one element that we pay too little attention to is the quality of solutions that can deliver more efficient results for the investments made. We are not going to close the gap with money, but with innovation. The goal should not be to bet as much as possible, but to learn as quickly as possible. Companies committed to identifying and scaling sustainable development solutions can do so by implementing four core innovation principles:

1. Think big

In the sustainable development sector, teams tend to think in terms of constraints. Nonprofit leaders would discuss how much budget is available, the number of volunteers supporting a program, and a time-limited framework. They wonder: what can we do with that? In the past five years advising companies, I’ve noticed that social entrepreneurs and sustainability teams feel the same way. To enable meaningful social and environmental innovation, companies must shift planning approaches from constraint-based to need-based planning. The discussion could instead be: what can we do to put the needle on the problem and how can we scale to make a difference in the depth of impact that will make an even bigger difference?

Related: Corporate Social Responsibility Done Right: 5 Ways to Keep Your…

2. Start small

Even though 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, nonprofit organizations receive a grant, start a program, and are held accountable to start delivering results. The pressure to deliver does not give the organization much time to experiment and come up with the best solutions. An important advantage of starting small is that you can experiment quickly, take more risks and learn cheaply. When planning for impact, we would most likely do extensive planning, meetings and research. During that time, we would build up significant risk and spend significant amounts of time and money. Instead, we could look ahead at how to overcome risk. Without spending so much time on detailed planning, we would go into the field and test 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 emphasis should be on the speed of iteration. Not to do things perfectly. A necessary shift at this point is: from striving for perfection to how quickly we can get through this cycle.

3. Including giving too much

Over the past 30 years, we have developed slow but steady initiatives towards some of the 17 goals, including access to clean water, electricity and sanitation. In my time working in the sustainable development sector, I have witnessed the failures of corporate social responsibility, charities and social affairs to address the root cause of major development problems such as poverty. These approaches often create aid dependency among communities and amplify patronizing narratives. For example, I’ve heard that it’s hard to do better than helping poor people achieve the bare minimum of decent living conditions because they live in remote areas, which is why it’s hard to access them. This remains true if we view sustainable development as giving rather than inclusive. Inclusive business models provide a solution that involves the poor as members of the formal economy. This gives people access to markets, goods, services and jobs, while businesses gain new consumer markets and supplier bases.

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4. Partner up

In most cases, companies do not have the know-how to design and execute an effective social impact strategy. This is especially true for small and medium-sized enterprises, but also for large companies and large enterprises.

There is an often overlooked opportunity to work hand-in-hand with local, specialist, impact-oriented organizations, including non-profits and social enterprises. Finding the right partner to guide, advise or execute a company’s social impact programs will yield two results:

  • Responsible Impact: By relying on the expertise of a nonprofit or social enterprise, companies can support communities in effective ways. Impact partners must be able to demonstrate the magnitude of the impact being made along the way using quarterly and annual impact reports.
  • Positive association: There is nothing in business today that delivers so many economic and social benefits, on so many levels, to so many stakeholders, as a strategic partnership with an impact organization. Unless you run a large company with the skills and resources to deliver an impact-focused program with the level of expertise of a specialized non-profit organization; partnering with nonprofits is your best bet.

These principles are a good start to increase a company’s social impact and its contributions to the sustainable development agenda. Other questions to consider are: how exactly do you communicate the impact of your business to your customers? How do you link your company’s mission and vision to your social impact goals? Will it be based on a narrative strategy? How do you ensure that your impact efforts resonate with different groups within your audience?

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