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Innovation and Corporate Engagement

08-07-2013 Ben Lewis

Business engagement with environmental and social issues

Business is a powerful global force capable of shaping societies in ways beyond the reach of governments and organisations like the UN. This makes it a crucial medium for tackling global problems like climate change and poverty. And as the recent news of CO2 emissions passing the once ‘safe’ threshold of 400 ppm in the atmosphere suggests, much more needs to happen to address these issues.

In this blog I explore how corporate engagement can be a catalyst for the innovation needed for effective action by businesses on social and environmental issues.

Human beings generate novelty in their many and varied interactions with one another, in a similar way to diversity driving biological evolution. Like agents in a complex adaptive system, humans are also interdependent, not independent of each other. This means that personal identity and ways of thinking are created between people, not internally or independently from others. Innovation is, after all, a uniquely social affair.

In a similar way, professional expertise is not developed remotely, but with experience and in context with others; this is a process that enables people to develop the ability to make the value-based judgments used everyday in businesses and elsewhere.

If we accept that social interaction contains within it the potential for generating unexpected outcomes, i.e. novelty, and that experience and context are crucial for developing expertise, then we can see that to generate novelty around social and environmental issues, professionals need to interact and engage with different constituencies, with different experiences and in different contexts through their professional identities.

But this is precisely what is lacking in most corporate environments around intractable issues like climate change, poverty, or biodiversity loss. Instead the issues are ‘boxed’ up in CSR departments or in charitable activities that have nothing to do with the core activities of the business. In some cases the problem is made into a technical one and becomes the responsibility of scientists or engineers.

Is it any wonder then that so little progress is being made on these issues?

Corporate engagement, if it is to mean anything, should be an opportunity for employees to experiment and explore how what they do relates to an issue itself, so they can develop their own narratives and insights in conversation with others. These in turn can be taken up and incorporated into their primary work and help to create value in the business’s core activity.

Some businesses already understand this idea and the potential commercial value in engaging in this way. Lewis Sustainable worked with advertising agency BBH in partnership with Slum Dwellers International to create a corporate social enterprise in Kampala, Uganda. The CSE project objective was to build the resilience of a local community against poverty and climate change impacts, in particular those exacerbated by poor sanitation.

The initial strategic review helped BBH recognise that these were material issues for their business as they seek to develop a commercial presence in Africa. The strategic driver was that in order to more effectively support clients' growth in developing markets, BBH knew they would benefit from a greater understanding of the complex social and environmental issues being faced in those countries as a result of climate change.

For SDI, the project is an opportunity to gain access to world-class communications talent. They have been able to use this resource to focus their ideas and to promote their activities and cause in a professional way to a larger audience than ever before.

This shared value creation is focussed on two specific actions:

1. The community is building its own sanitation block with funds provided by BBH

2. A BBH team is helping to promote the value of this to a range of local and national actors.

 

This is meaningful corporate engagement because it gets to the heart of what the business is about and how what it does can relate to an issue itself. Creating shared value on this way, by engaging professional expertise in new contexts, or in alliance with different constituencies, holds the potential for something different and original to happen, generating innovative solutions to social and environmental problems.

But as we have learnt in our own practice, this type of activity is difficult to do well because there is often no outcome that can be easily and quickly quantified, it can potentially be expensive and requires the investment of time, a rare commodity in a corporate world governed by an economics that only values more today.

There is also the danger that some critics will also argue that any activity of this sort is simply self-interest dressed up as something else.

We are not suggesting that corporate engagement is a panacea and that if every business sent a few employees to a slum everything will be OK. But if we are serious about the environmental and social issues that hold the potential to undermine our society, and we genuinely believe in the transformative value of business to do good, then this type of thinking is a good starting point for any business to begin taking more meaningful action.

Because more of the same simply will not do.

 

 About Ben Lewis

Ben Lewis is a New Economics Foundation research associate and founder of LewisSustainable, a consultancy that develops, manages and delivers CSEactivate projects with Brite Green in partnership with Slum Dwellers International.

 

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