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Social innovation: an opportunity for business sustainability


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The Conversation

Maria Eugenia Clouet

PhD Candidate Governance and Organisational Culture

José Antonio Alfaro Tanco

Senior Associate Professor of the University of Navarra

"The pandemic represents an unusual opportunity to re-flexamine, re-imagine and reboot the world".

With this phrase, Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum (the Davos forum), launched the Great Reset initiative in 2020 with the intention of finding new ideas and seizing opportunities to make the world a better place.

Sustainability is in action and will transform everything. test is the EU's priorities and policies and the launch of the Green Pact, which aims to achieve a sustainable post-covid recovery and transform Europe's Economics into a more modern, efficient, competitive and people-centred economy.

This is an opportunity to change the way we look at things and transform the way we do and manage, thinking about the triple economic, social and environmental dimension that sustainability provides.

Social innovation, a strategic tool

In our view, social innovation can be a tool to drive the sustainability strategy that enables companies to achieve and demonstrate their real impact on the triple bottom line (economic, social, environmental).

We say this for two reasons. First, by its very definition. Social innovation is an innovation subject characterised by:

  1. Contribute added value to business, transforming both business results and the intangible aspects of business (reputation, image, brand).

  2. To provoke social impact, i.e. a change in society. Either because the social innovation initiative is oriented towards the solution of a specific social problem, or because it is oriented towards generating changes in the company's way of doing and managing (organisational diversity policies, selection of suppliers, etc.).

  3. Its implementation is carried out jointly with the social agents involved.

The second issue is that social innovation, by its very nature, analyses and tackles organisational and environmental challenges from a cross-cutting viewpoint and a transversal approach . Its goal is to achieve the greatest possible impact on the triple bottom line in order to move from philanthropy to innovation.

Social innovation, how and what for?

Through social innovation activities companies can design solutions for:

  • Address a range of social concerns more quickly.

  • Manage problems more efficiently.

  • Create competitive advantage and social value.

To do this, it is necessary to:

  1. Implement a clear and shared social purpose and aligned in terms of sustainability, to channel resources towards the development of innovation activities involving both internal and external agents. This point is core topic not only to solve social problems, but also to create shared value.

  2. Knowing and understanding the environment and identifying the social problems to be solved. This is essential to identify how to combine innovation with the desired social impact. Integrating an innovation ecosystem where there is frequent interaction between agents is vital to recognise those aspects that serve as triggers to stimulate ideas that give rise to social innovation practices.

  3. Possess the right competences for promote social innovation actions. If not, it is crucial to seek them out and incorporate them into the corporate culture itself.

  4. Build a strong business case, based on being able to account for the economic, social and environmental impact generated.

This is not purely theoretical. Social innovation can be used to promote sustainable practices. Either because a specific problem is solved from the core of its activity, or because through social innovation it is possible to integrate sustainability into the organisational management .

Businesses at the forefront of social innovation

We can find examples of companies that are points of reference letter in terms of sustainability.

The Spanish SME Ecoalf was founded in 2012 to create sustainable fashion. Innovation has enabled it to design solutions to the environmental and social challenges that its project involves (use of recycled materials and decent conditions at work ).

China Mobile, the largest telecommunications and mobile services provider in mainland China, launched mHealth in 2009, an SMS healthcare service reservation , which provides attendance for navigation (location and directions to healthcare facilities) and information on hospitals, doctors, Departments and medical policies.

[Danone] is a world leader in nutrition. Through group NutriPlanet, it has analysed habits and health problems in 52 countries. These programs of study have resulted in result, in Brazil, a cheese with less sugar and more vitamins; in Bangladesh, a nutrient-rich yoghurt; in Senegal, a packaging made from local grain and milk that can be stored at room temperature.

The actions of these three companies have in common a clear social purpose , recognising local concerns and exploring possible technological solutions to them.

Social innovation: sustainability and competitiveness

In order to have more competitive companies, it is necessary to think about core topic social impact and sustainability. This requires fostering a corporate culture in which people are willing to take risks, developing partnership practices and promoting a culture that is more open to new products and services.

Social innovation is a tool for companies to rethink their business models, to go beyond profit generation, to innovate and to collaborate with society in terms of social impact.