Only 20 years after the rise of the Internet, our time is defined by ever faster change, visible both in markets and our societies. For business and social leaders, innovation has become central to coping with, and capitalizing upon, these transformations. The wide variety of approaches to managing these changes makes it no surprise that innovation has become a term both highly-regarded and yet somehow under-defined.
Within the field of entrepreneurial education and training, our daily work has revealed that there is tremendous potential to champion a new kind of innovation – one that is social. Let me give you four good reasons why.
1. INNOVATION AS A SKILL AND NOT A PRODUCT
Innovation used to be very much about an invention, a product, or a service. In many industries it still is, and those inventions have the potential to make our lives better. Yet, predominantly, it has become much more complicated to predict what a consumer will need or what a good product should look like in five years’ time. This is the case for both our personal lives as well as for organizations and both often have to adapt to different circumstances very quickly. To operate successfully then, innovation should be seen as a skill that people have, rather than a product or a service. And if we consider innovation as the capacity to create “a lasting and sustainable solution to a problem that is new,” then we need to empower ourselves and our employees with this skill. Innovation in this sense is social in that it is all about people - their ideas, their passion, and the skills to turn them into action.
2. SUSTAINABLE GROWTH FOR THE FIVE BILLION
So if innovation is about solving problems by creating something new, where is the biggest opportunity to exercise this skill? Undoubtedly, there are tremendous opportunities and challenges in the highly developed economies of the world. But there are also around five billion people in the world fighting to escape poverty. Business opportunities and innovation in new products and services for this growing population often address humans’ most crucial needs such as health, energy, education, agriculture, and urban development, to name just a few. There is tremendous potential in what is often referred to as “bottom-billion business,” and any company that aims to innovate for this market will have to think about products and services that make these customers’ lives better. Innovation in this space has to be social by definition.
3. IDEAS THAT ARE SUSTAINABLE
Even if there is disagreement about where the majority of growth will take place in the future, questions remain on how we will manage to maintain our living standards and create the same standards for more people on the planet without further depleting our natural resources. We have learned by now that this objective is not something that is “nice to have” but is a fundamental necessity. Any innovation that reduces our carbon footprint, reduces waste, and improves the way we consume resources is also an innovation that fundamentally takes into account our societies and has the potential to be hugely valuable economically.
4. GOOD BUSINESS
If you agree with me on the constant change that we face today, we also have to ask ourselves who the actors are that have the most leverage and power to impact our world. As our world gets ever more interconnected and we have more information readily available to us, big businesses have to answer to their consumers and employees regarding what kind of role they want to play in the world. CEOs increasingly recognize that in order to continue to have a broad customer base, good business sense means doing business in a way that is good to society and the environment - not for the sake of morality, but for the sake of the medium- and long-term value of the company. Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, has taken it even further and has created a vision to turn his company into “the world’s biggest NGO.” But whatever the goal is, business development in today’s world cannot be de-coupled from the direction our societies and our environment take. Innovation inherently needs a social component for business to make sense.
There are wonderful reasons to have ample hope with regard to the direction the world is going. There are also tremendous problems and challenges on the ground around the globe. Our lives today are defined by changing circumstances. We will have to adapt and we will have to create new opportunities as we go along. Taking the social dimension of innovation into account will not only allow us to be more effective, it will also give us the chance to create something that is larger than our own personal self-interest. That is why thinking about innovation is the most fun and the most impactful when it is social.
Florian Hoffmann is a social entrepreneur and innovator in the field of education. As President of the DO School, he is part of shaping the new landscape of higher education. Florian founded the DO School as an organization offering innovative executive programs to today’s emerging entrepreneurs and leading organizations. By combining an effective innovation method with real-life implementation and blended learning, the DO School programs empower change-makers to turn their ideas into actions that create real impact in society. While doing so, the institution creates an intertwined global network of successful DOers. In addition, Florian regularly contributes to the ongoing discourse on innovation, education, and youth unemployment through articles and talks. thedoschool.org