Editor’s Note: This blog appeared first on LinkedIn, November14. It is republished with permission by the author, Coro Strandberg.
Around the world there is a growing consensus that a company’s social role goes beyond meeting legal requirements, complying with ethical standards, creating jobs and paying taxes. Increasingly consumers believe that companies and brands must actively lead social change. And with the recent adoption of the Global Goals, the 193 members of the UN have made clear that the vision of a sustainable world requires everyone to do their part: governments, businesses and individuals. In response to people’s changing expectations, the world’s most innovative companies are building social value right into their core business strategies, not only to address poverty and other problems in their communities, but also to improve workplace relations, gain market advantages and grow profits faster. In my last social post, I explained how transformational companies are supporting social enterprises through innovative buying strategies to diversify their supply chains, unlock creativity and connect more closely with their customers. In this post, I focus on the importance of Social Innovation, the most transformative of the four core corporate strategies that I explore in detail in my Social Value Business Guide.
The business community has the unique insights, expertise and resources needed to create game-changing solutions for more inclusive and humane societies. They do so through a “social innovation” process that involves doing business in ways that create business and social value. Social innovation is when companies improve conditions and profits by applying a social lens to their business models, products, services, processes or relationships. It is a new approach to value creation in which firms bring their unique set of corporate assets (such as their entrepreneurial skills, business acumen, resources and ability to scale) to create solutions to complex social issues, linking the firm’s success with societal success. In tandem with social outcomes, these companies create new customer value propositions that their competitors cannot see, giving them a competitive advantage that reduces costs and increases revenues and profits. Some companies go even further on this continuum and become a social purpose company, coupling their growth with a commensurate increase in social good.
The challenge and opportunity for companies is to find social concerns that intersect with their core business functions and create collaborative partnerships with other companies, governments and like-minded civil society organizations in order to harness each party’s unique strengths and address issues together. It involves pivoting business competencies to test, prototype and scale new business ventures that generate social value for communities and the broader society such as reducing poverty, homelessness, underemployment, skill shortages, poor health and nutrition, obesity, income inequality and social exclusion.
In turn businesses gain a number of important benefits depending on the social issues and strategies they pursue. The range of business benefits may include improved productivity and brand differentiation, as well as new and deeper insights into customer segments, new products and services, secured access to supplies and resources, enhanced employee recruitment and retention and increased market share through new and more loyal customers.
Social Innovation involves a shift in perspective in how a company contributes to community and social well-being. Whereas traditional companies contribute to social causes through donations and other charitable endeavours, social value businesses make investments in new ventures and enterprises that value social impact along with their bottom line. The most innovative businesses use Social Innovation to push these transformational practices further along the continuum of social business value, leveraging their business expertise and external collaborations to make a sustained systemic impact and drive business value.
Leading social value businesses work to identify and understand leverage points for social change along their value chain and develop win-win strategies for addressing community issues while generating business benefits. They use tools which predominate in technology development, such as design-thinking, rapid prototyping, big data, collaborative innovation labs and open innovation platforms.
The world’s most innovative and transformational businesses understand that their role in society has evolved. Leading companies harness the power of social innovation to create lasting benefits for their investors, their customers and the people living in their communities.
I encourage Chief Strategy and Innovation Officers to read my Social Innovation Guide, which examines how innovative companies around the world are using Social Innovation and other transformative strategies to address problems in today’s society while creating financial value for investors and shareholders. With input from a world-leading social innovation expert, Darcy Riddell, it is the first practical roadmap of its kind to help strategic planners, R&D managers, product developers and sustainability practitioners develop social business models.
The research and strategies outlined in this guide will show you why social businesses are more profitable businesses, and how your company can become a change agent in the local community and a leader in the global marketplace.
SiG Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 12, 2015 on Al Etmanski‘s blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from the author.
A remarkable event is taking place in Winnipeg next week – Canada’s first ever Indigenous Innovation Summit.
I wasn’t certain whether I should accept the offer to participate. What could I say that would make a difference? Everything I’ve ever read about social innovation I’ve found alive and thriving in Indigenous communities. And Indigenous people hadn’t read the material! For example, consider the Gwaii Haanas Agreement. The Haida Nation grasped paradox and created something both magnificent and practical out of a seemingly unresolvable stalemate. The agreement acknowledges that the Council of Haida Nations and the Government of Canada share equal decision-making power to manage Gwaii Haanas National Reserve, despite conflicting views on sovereignty. This is sheer lobbying virtuosity resulting in the unimaginable. It is easy to understand why the agreement is studied by Aboriginal people all around the world.
I had a second fear. Social innovation technologies are still new and largely untested. And like all technologies they are embedded with the values of the dominant culture. That’s the same culture, which introduced and scaled residential schools and other tools of cultural destruction. I’m part of that culture. I’m sure there were many people like me at the time who thought they were doing the right thing by pursuing a policy of assimilation.
Then I realized I was looking at this event through the fog of my cultural bias. If any group of people knows how to evaluate the usefulness of any tool, technology or methodology, Indigenous people do. You don’t find paths back from the brink of cultural extinction without being wary of social innovators like me who are bearing gifts.
It slowly dawned on me. The reason to attend is not to contribute. It’s to receive. There is a heritage of aboriginal innovation and resilience that defines us as Canadians. “Innovation,” as the conference organizers declare, “is an Indigenous value.” The early settlers depended on it.
Today’s Indigenous change-makers are a dynamic mix of this heritage blended with cultural practices, ingenuity, strategic vision, entrepreneurship and reconciliation. And still they extend the hand of partnership despite how we have dishonoured and exploited their hospitality in the past.
The future of all our children depends on the leadership of Indigenous Canadians. And on folks like me stepping back and listening.
For information and tickets to the first Indigenous Innovation Summit, November 18-20th, in Winnipeg, click here.
“It’s not the truth unless everyone wins.”
– Cindy Boyko, Council of Haida Nation representative administering Gwaii Haanas Agreement
Also check out Brown Town Muddy Water a new documentary about Winnipeg’s early indigenous music explosion. It’s produced by Jesse Green, Billy Joe’s son.
After starting a series of small businesses in university, Geoff Cape fell in love with big ideas and mustered the courage to explore these ideas, learning much along the way.
This is the story of Evergreen.
On September 25th, we were fortunate enough to have Geoff Cape, Founder and CEO of Evergreen, join us for our Inspiring Action for Social Impact lecture series. As we listened, it is clear that it has never been a straight path for the organization, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but it continues to be guided by a simple idea: we need to integrate nature into cities by engaging people in transforming the urban experience. From the very beginning, Evergreen brought this idea to life on the ground with activities like tree planting, but it has always played with complex issues as well, working with unusual partners to spark creative projects.
The Urban Century – what is happening to our cities?
In 1990, environmental messaging was about saving the polar bears, saving the rainforest or thinking about wilderness landscapes – none focused on cities. While Evergreen didn’t have the capacity to tackle the full complexity of urban issues at the time, they were always focused on the urban experience. It is at the heart of their work.
A nightmare scenario is now playing out globally in cities as a result of urban sprawl and population growth, creating sterile and isolated urban communities. Combined with the intensifying impacts of climate change, cities have also seen damaging fires, extreme weather storms, and water damage that have the ability to cripple industries and local economies. The 2013 Calgary storms caused billions worth of damage.
From a simple idea to radical innovation
Innovation has always been at the core of Evergreen’s DNA; they were one of the first organizations in Toronto to have an internet connection and email addresses. Evergreen continues to push for innovation while staying true to its mandate through creative and often grassroots programming, such as its work to transform children’s learning environments.
By literally bringing nature to children in their playgrounds and other learning environments, Evergreen ignited the re-design of children school grounds across Canada. This fresh approach resulted in changes globally and has inspired similar projects in California. The concept puts civic engagement into the hands of community, allowing them to transform their shared spaces leading to empowered communities and, often, introducing a way to bring the interest of both corporate and political partners to the table. More recently, Evergreen transformed the Toronto city landscape with Evergreen Brick Works. The Don Valley Brick Works Factory helped literally build the city, including landmarks like Casa Loma and Massey Hall, but once it closed, it left a heavy industrial footprint. Evergreen had the vision to reimagine what it could mean for the city – before it even had permission to do so. Combining bold artistic statements and creative thinking, they found an architect who could help realize their vision, while also keeping and retrofitting the original industrial structure.
Unusual Partnerships and Bringing Funding to the Table
When Toyota officially came on board as a partner 15 years ago for Evergreen’s school landscape program, this kind of partnership was rare. In 1998, when talks around partnership began, no environmental organization would partner with a car company and Geoff was heavily criticized for suggesting the idea – many staff nearly resigned.
Feeling his way forward, Geoff created a partnership strategy that incorporated the strong values of the Evergreen staff. He drew up a charter, which was signed by the CEO of Toyota and Geoff, holding both partners accountable to be leaders in their respective fields. As of 2010, the partnership has worked with 2,200 schools and has had a direct impact on almost 900,000 students across the country.
Through the years, Evergreen learned that by connecting externally and building unusual partnerships they could foster creativity, but with unusual partnerships, there was also a need to listen carefully to the community, ask for help, and ask good questions to navigate the unknown.
What’s in the future for cities?
With a majority of the world’s people living in cities, it is estimated that $50 trillion will go towards building urban infrastructure in the next 15 years. Evergreen knows we need to build something fundamentally different to the status quo and wants to be part of bridging and developing the ideas that support sustainability, resilience to climate change, and efficiency. The future of our cities should not just deliver more infrastructure, but engage citizens with equality to create a higher quality of life.
Evergreen has and continues to evolve as an organization by running a diverse variety of programs, being comfortable working with ambiguity, and operating with both distributed leadership and constant restructuring to make sure the organization reflects its priorities.
It is rare for a founder to continue as CEO after 25 years, a fact that is not lost on Geoff. He admits he is not sure it makes sense for him to lead Evergreen in the future – although at this stage, he would like to. This is not the talk you hear or expect to hear from a CEO whose job security relies on the board of directors being confident in a CEO’s vision and leadership.
This is also not the first time Geoff has voiced these exact worries.
Back in 2008, just as Evergreen Brickworks was starting to secure its funding and bring new partners to the table, the organization was experiencing a pivotal point of growth. At that stage, Geoff expressed concern that he would become an institutional bottleneck that would stifle creativity in the organization.
Seven years later, we know this couldn’t be further from the truth. During his 25 years, Geoff has handled controversy and risk taking, continuing to earn the support and confidence of those at Evergreen. Every challenge is faced with Geoff’s trademark of open leadership. Being self-aware of himself and the organization, and transparent with his staff, he is committed to doing what is right for the organization and the urban communities they seek to inspire and empower.
These values are now at the roots of Evergreen.
For Geoff’s full talk, watch below!
On September 14, Geoff Cape, CEO of Evergreen, will hit the stage at MaRS for a MaRS Global Leadership event, in partnership with our Inspiring Action for Social Impact Series, to reflect on the past 25 years of work led by Evergreen and propose ways we can move toward a more sustainable state. Register here.
Near the tipping point?
Working at SiG in the MaRS building exposes you to many cool projects and companies. Some days you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re only days away from the tipping point to true social and environmental sustainability.
A quick scan of the many organizations moving us toward a clean, green environment reveals companies such as SunFarmer, Nanoleaf and Avalon Battery. Then there are transformational urban design projects such as Cities for People and Jane’s Walk, two programs I’ve been privileged to work with on a day-to-day basis. Today I learned about QUIO Learning Map, an educational technology application created by a company based in Winnipeg that develops solutions to improve student learning and teacher effectiveness. The company was part of the third cohort of the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing’s Impact8 program. And the list goes on.
All of the exciting new developments and the stories of those who have been at the front edge of innovation for some time remind us that the road to transformation is long. There is rich knowledge to be found in these tales of failure, effort and success. Getting something started is one thing; keeping it growing is another.
The future is Evergreen
Evergreen has been at the forefront of sustainability innovation for 25 years. The organization has expanded from a small charity focused on community and school-ground greening to an innovative non-profit organization with global reach. It is now tackling a whole series of challenges and opportunities related to the broader issues of urban sustainability.
Evergreen has evolved dramatically over the years with a series of projects and programs that—more often than not—have enabled strategic leaps forward. It has been a wild ride and Evergreen has progressed from an organization with a simple idea to an institutional leader on subjects ranging from restoration ecology and the design of children’s learning environments to transit planning and laneway housing.
Today, 85% of Canadians and half of the world’s seven billion people live in urban centres, which means that the transition to greener, more sustainable cities is imperative. Evergreen doesn’t look for the hardest problems to solve; rather, they look for ideas that are stuck, but that are ready to move.
Leading all of this work is Geoff Cape, the founder and CEO of Evergreen. Geoff is a founding member of the World Entrepreneurship Forum and a regular participant at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He was also the founding chair of the Sustainability Network. Geoff is an Ashoka Fellow and was recognized as one of Canada’s Top 40 under 40 in 1999. He won a Peter F. Drucker Award for Nonprofit Innovation in 1996 and was also awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal. In 2007, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship named him the Canadian Social Entrepreneur of the Year and, in 2010, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from Sustainable Buildings Canada. That’s some serious cred!
On September 14, Geoff will return to MaRS for the next Global Leadership event to talk about strategies that work and opportunities for change. Join us for Greening Cities, Healthy Planet: Strategies that Work, Opportunities for Change on Monday September 14, at 5:30 p.m. in the MaRS Auditorium.
Students receive half-price admission with the code: GLSTUDENT15.
With the Federal election campaign well underway it is high time we talk about innovation.
Governments are often written off as a potential engine for innovation, but innovation in government is at the core of its future and the future of our country.
“Necessity is the mother of innovation” and in a time of complex social and ecological issues, rising deficits, and where calls to reform the state get louder across the world – innovation has earned its place in this discussion.
There is no better time for this discussion than during an election period. A change in government can mean radical disruption, even a slight shift in the balance of representation can allow for renewed interest and traction on otherwise forgotten initiatives. It also provides an opportunity to reframe, rethink, and reinvent current initiatives.
Ultimately, an election provides us with an opportunity to pick a vision for the future of our country, and by extension decide where resources will be allocated, which often dictates the government’s role in the market.
The current prevailing archetype for government is that of market regulator: offering both oversight and at times, salvation for dying industries and businesses. But governments have done and can do more for the economy.
Governments have been unsung risk takers for decades, making significant investments in groundbreaking research, innovations, and businesses. In her book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Private vs. Public Sector Myths, economist Mariana Mazzucato delves into the incredible impact government-funded research has had in innovation as a result of what she refers to as “The Entrepreneurial State.” The State, as she illustrates, uses vision and the financial means to position itself as a market shaper – not fixer.
Government-funded research has created the elements necessary for some of the biggest and most successful products and companies today. Mazzucato cleverly illustrates her point with the iPhone, whose components and features like GPS, the internet, touch screen display, microchips, and more were a direct result of robust government-funding in innovative technologies. Governments were the catalysts that helped fund the building blocks to the modern world.
Canadians have much to be proud of when it comes to innovation. Canada was the third nation on earth to travel to space. Canadians have made huge leaps in medical science, including the groundbreaking discovery of insulin. Canada continues to be a robust research and development machine championing public-private partnerships, but work remains to be done to encourage businesses to increase their efforts in research and development.
In Canada, governments contribute 10% of the billions spent on research and development, but they play an important role by providing time and the resources necessary for change to occur.
True change takes time, but it also takes the vision to commit to change. The country is staring down some of the most complex issues ever faced and we need the gusto to face them with a research and development machine that focuses not just on traditional tech inventions, but one that catalyses social and ecological innovation, as well as the intersect between the three.
We are starting to accelerate in this direction. Various levels of government have given bold mandates and government-funding to explore challenges through various task forces and commissions.
A powerful example that comes to mind is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an important first step to a renewed relationship based on mutual understanding and respect with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people in our country. There was a powerful call to action made by the TRC for different levels of government to work together in order to implement the recommendations in areas like Child Welfare, Education, Health, Justice and more – all areas in which First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people face unique barriers that must be addressed.
Another that comes to mind is the Advisory Panel on Healthcare Innovation, whose mandate was twofold. First, to “Identify the five most promising areas of innovation in Canada and internationally that have the potential to sustainably reduce growth in health spending while leading to improvements in the quality and accessibility of care”. As well as, to “recommend the five ways the federal government could support innovation in the areas identified above.”
Coming out with a report just last month, the Advisory Panel went against its mandate boldly recommending the creation of an annual $1-billion Health Innovation Fund. Their justification was simple; in our system we have been missing “a pool of funds to support change agents as they seek to develop and implement both incremental and disruptive innovations in the organization and delivery of healthcare.” Incredible work to improve delivery of our healthcare system has been accomplished, but there is no way to scale their success. The Innovation Fund would change that.
Last, but only one of the many examples of work done in the last decade, is the Ecofiscal Commission which although independent of government, aims “to serve policy-makers across the political spectrum, at all levels of government.” Their mandate is to “identify and promote practical fiscal solutions for Canada that spark the innovation required for increased economic and environmental prosperity.” The 12 economists who make up the Advisory Panel released the Commission’s inaugural report, advocating for every province to put a price on carbon.
These reports include the work of leaders across all sectors and fields who sense urgency and a need to act now. As we continue to navigate the longest election since 1926, it is important to bring these conversations into public discourse and encourage all parties to embody the Entrepreneurial State in their platforms. Regardless of the results from October 19, Canada needs a government that will champion catalytic innovation, evidence based decision making, and impact investments that will establish Canada as a leader in green energy, in health innovation, in social innovation, in research and development, and more.