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Accelerating Social Innovation with Business Growth

Author: Chris Ye
Published Date: 9 June 2014

This article was originally published here.

Turning on the TV, clicking the headlines on a news webpage, swiping through news apps pages, it is not difficult to be reminded that we live in a world full of social, environmental and economic challenges. Property, congestion, climate change, biodiversity and financial crisis are a few examples illustrating that we did not act fast enough and that they are now becoming more pressing in the 21 century. While the traditional ways of addressing these challenges seem to be insufficient, the need for unlocking social innovation power is growing.

Center for Social Innovation, Stanford Graduate School of Business, defines social innovation as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than present solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.”

The private sector has a long history of excelling performance through innovation, especially on generating new business ideas, evolving business model, and polishing products and services. By identifying and developing social innovation opportunities within the core business scope and along the value chain, the private sector would help to push forward the development agenda, while achieving sustainable business growth.

Encouraging social innovation within the business scope

To accelerate social innovation, companies could start by identifying opportunities within the business scope and combining them with their core business development.

Using the marketing team’s expertise on identifying market needs, companies can screen and identify the social needs that match with their business’ vision and strategy, which are also addressable within the private sectors’ role. Mapping out the company’s resources and understanding how they support the social innovation helps to prioritise the identified opportunities. Running the ideas by different functional departments, i.e. human resources, finance, R&D, customer services, etc, and asking them to further develop the ideas with their business skills and expertise, while putting both the “social-need-glasses” and “business-need-glasses” on, companies can evolve their social innovation to be more solid and practical. After the prototyping and piloting stage, the social innovation is ready to scale up and generate value for both society and business.

Hitachi, a Japanesemultinationalengineering and electronicsconglomeratecompany, is making great efforts in developing social innovation business by using well-developed IT and infrastructure technologies to improve social safety and security. Developed from the company’s core business, Hitachi’s social innovation business model covers a wide range of technologies in different areas, such as water treatment, mobility, healthcare, IT systems, energy, smart grids, elevators and escalators, construction machinery, automotive and materials and key devices. The model is a good example of identifying and developing social innovation within the business scope to achieve social/environmental goods while ensuring business growth. An intensive series of case studies on Hitachi’s social innovation business is available here.

Expanding the social innovation impact outside the company

The private sector could also expand the social innovation impact by engaging the community, different parties along its value chain and joining networks.

Companies might be good at understanding the market needs and innovating products or services to address them, but they usually do not have a clear picture on the social needs. Proactive and inclusive community engagement enables companies to understand and social needs, while it also provides valuable feedback in the social innovation prototyping and piloting stage.

Engaging different parties along a companies’ value chain on encouraging social innovation is also an effective way of expanding the impact. One example is providing business opportunities to the poor via micro-franchise. Creating small and smart franchises own or run by the community members enables the company to enhancing their brand value while contributing to the local economy and entrepreneurship development.

Companies could also expand their social innovation impact by joining international and local networks. Social Innovation Exchange-SIX is a global network that inspires, connects and supports social innovators across different sectors. Local social innovation networks that focus more on the local context are also developing quickly, like Shunde Social Innovation Center in China. By joining such networks, companies can exchange knowledge and share experiences with their peers and cross-sector organizations, to accelerate the social innovation development agenda.

If you would like to know more about the other sectors’ role on social innovation, you can refer to a research, Social innovation: what it is, why it matters & how it can be accelerated, published by SAID Business School, University of Oxford.