Social innovation: a powerful tool for sustainability

Stakeholders including the local community must be involved in sustainability programmes.
social innovation at the community level

Social Innovation is the development of new and effective solutions to social problems, for the good of society as a whole.

The rapid growth of the world’s population has been an inevitable outcome of advancements in technology and wellbeing. People are living longer, and are enjoying a better quality of life overall.

But such speedy growth isn’t always a good thing. The greater the number of people there are, the heavier the strain on the world’s resources.

We should celebrate the social progress that humankind is making around the world. But we also need to develop new ways of adapting to some of the negative changes in society that have resulted, and the new social needs that are emerging.

For instance, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lives in urban areas.[1] That number is growing.

Urbanisation gives people greater employment opportunities and better access to healthcare. But it also means that economic divides are becoming more significant. And so is competition for resources such as water and energy.

Profit or progress?

Business around the world has a responsibility to innovate in order to react to these developments in a way that meets changing social needs.

And many companies are taking up this challenge. For instance, Hitachi, a leading technology and infrastructure company, uses Social Innovation to ensure that their business strategies combine the pursuit of economic benefits for everyone with efforts to reduce the stresses caused by the rapid shifts underway in our societies.

Social innovation brings comfort, cleaner environments, a better quality of life and less stress to communities. And at the same time it allows companies to continue with the profit-making enterprises that ultimately underpin much of the good in society by providing employment and quality goods and services.

In short, Social Innovation provides a bridge between the success of a company and the progress of the society around it.

Successful innovators combine an awareness of changing social and environmental needs with a realisation that businesses are better off collaborating with like-minded entities.

These entities can include other companies, social enterprises, governments, charities. Sectors that were once seen as separate are no longer, and the pursuit of “shared values” rather than individual profit will help build new, and more productive, relationships.

The most successful innovators also include the communities that will be served by new innovation within this process of “co-creation”.

Mega trends in society

The age of Social Innovation has brought with it a number of so-called “mega trends” that together define challenges and opportunities going forward. Among the most important are:

  • Urbanisation: By 2020, there will be 30 mega cities globally, and the city infrastructure market will provide a $2.2 trillion opportunity.[2] Cities, rather than countries, will become targets of investment
  • Smart is the new Green: Investment in green technologies and energy has been a major focus of innovation over the past two decades. However, increasing resources will go into making cities “smart”
  • Health, wellness and wellbeing: Global expenditure on healthcare treatment will gradually reduce. However, more resources will be channelled into prevention and early diagnosis
  • Future of mobility: Companies will begin to look at whole cities as customers, and provide solutions for mobile communications and physical transport that match rapid urban population growth
  • Future of energy: Rising energy costs and greater demand have triggered innovations in energy efficiency, such as smart grids and more sustainable energy sources

These are examples of areas that social innovators will increasingly target in the future. Together they present perhaps the most significant challenges to our changing world. Yet they are also the most prized opportunities for businesses who pursue a new ethos of “value for many”.

Companies that work solely for profit are unlikely to maximise their opportunities.

Instead a combination of the search for profits combined with efforts to boost the wellbeing of their customers (whether directly or indirectly) is the approach that will lead to long term commercial strength.

Successful Innovation

Success in the evolving field of Social Innovation will depend on whether companies adopt a new vision that incorporates a more holistic view of the context in which they operate.

Among the key factors for success are:

  • Company ethos: Companies must demonstrate a sincere and pioneering spirit built around sustainable profit, powered by an employee base that believes in that vision.
  • Convergence and integration: New technologies and information analytics must be leveraged to help develop connected solutions. The linking of green and smart technologies will be one major area of development.
  • Collaboration: Multiple stakeholders, such as governments, businesses and charities, must come together to work. Successful enterprises will utilise social media and other communication technologies to help build more collaborative platforms.
  • Effective stakeholder management: The input of local communities will be essential in the delivery of successful Social Innovation schemes. Stakeholders will want schemes that bring clear value and benefits to people on the ground
  • Business-to-Society (B2S) business model: This goes beyond the traditional Business-to-Business and Business-to-Consumer models that prioritise profit and benefits. Instead B2S incorporates a complete stakeholder focus with an emphasis on environment and ethics.

The stakeholders that stand to benefit from Social Innovation include local and regional communities. These will see positive transformational change. In addition governments that invest in Social Innovation schemes will enjoy both material and reputational gains.

And the companies themselves, who are the solution providers, will be the vanguard of a new movement that distinguishes them from businesses who maintain a traditional emphasis on profit alone. In the long term it will be the social innovators that succeed.

This article was first published in Business Reporter. Image courtesy of

[1] United Nations, 10 July 2014 –

[2] United Nations, 2014 World Urbanization Prospects –