This week, global leaders are joining two very different gatherings on the U.S. East and West Coasts. One is diplomatic, the other is disruptive. One represents old power, the other new ideas. The disconnect between them highlights a major opportunity for the planet.
In New York, heads of state convening for the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) will join international organizations, philanthropists, companies and social entrepreneurs to accelerate action toward the Global Goals, a set of 17 ambitious goals on issues such as poverty, health, and sustainability that leaders have committed to reach by 2030. In San Francisco, Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference will engage over 17,000 clients, entrepreneurs, nonprofit partners and thought leaders to ramp up their use of technology tools available through the company’s cloud-based ecosystem.
In New York, the focus is on the greatest challenges facing the planet — and the urgent need for disruptive, transformational solutions. In San Francisco, many of the tools that will transform the world through the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution are being developed — with varying levels of commitment to designing those tools to solve global issues.
There are some connections between the two — UNGA’s official agenda and side events will touch on technology innovations that can contribute to reaching the Global Goals. DreamForce will feature a high-profile session on climate change, building on California’s recent Global Climate Action Summit. But these events are anchored in communities which still operate in largely separate spheres. A fuller embrace between the two could be a win-win for both communities — spurring new innovations for business while mainstreaming the Global Goals into tech company missions and accelerating progress on urgent global challenges.
Many tech companies have socially responsible initiatives, and the industry’s products have already had a major impact in enabling citizens and changemakers to mobilize action and resources more effectively. But the enormous reach and capabilities of technology companies are not yet matched by their impact on directly, intentionally solving societal problems.
To mobilize a greater industry-wide commitment to the Global Goals, technology companies can draw three lessons from some of the most active companies in Silicon Valley — and learn from hard-won experience in other industry sectors.
1) Pick a mission and go all-in
Pick an issue — any issue. The Global Goals set ambitious goals for solving some of the world’s greatest challenges: ending hunger and poverty. Providing clean water, clean energy, quality health care and education for all. Building sustainable cities and resilient infrastructure. Transforming production and consumption models to be sustainable for the planet. Reducing inequality, injustice and gender discrimination. Enabling jobs and growth. There is something for everyone here — all companies can contribute, going beyond philanthropy and volunteerism to delivering impact through scalable business models.
To do so effectively, it’s important to commit the entire company — driving impact through its core business models, inspiring employees and executives to own and champion the cause, and articulating the commitment to the public and shareholders. For example, Salesforce declares that “the business of business is to make the world a better place,” embracing employee volunteerism, philanthropy, and nonprofit support. A highly active CEO, Marc Benioff, and a future-oriented global strategy have helped drive company support for high-profile global initiatives on climate change and oceans. Other leading tech companies — including Google and Facebook — have set up substantial dot-org operations to make their products and technical expertise available to nonprofits and communities. Some startups are designing their entire business around planetary needs — such as Rothy’s, which aims to make sustainability fashionable with shoes from recycled water bottles.
Some CEOs make high profile commitments to specific issues and rally their company accordingly. Unilever CEO Paul Polman set ambitious targets for supply-chain sustainability through the company’s Sustainable Living Plan, while committing the company to numerous sustainability-related partnerships and championing the issue with global policymakers. DSM’s Feike Sijbesma is a vigorous advocate on nutrition and climate change issues, stewarding the creation of a new brand — Africa Improved Foods — that provides nutritious and affordable food products for the African market. The key is a shift in mindset to think of the company’s global contribution as a core element of the company’s mission and business model, rather than a peripheral commitment.
2) Build holistic, scalable solutions
The Global Goals are large, complex, interconnected challenges. Any one of them — for example poverty, or hunger, or climate change — has many dimensions and thousands of stakeholders with differing viewpoints and capabilities already active within the sector. Companies committing to make a big contribution on one of these goals will need to invest time in understanding the complex web of issues and actors that surrounds it — and to designing solutions with the whole system in mind. The days of top-down or “silver bullet” solutions are largely over — which means that complex problems can rarely be solved by a new technology alone. Instead, solutions co-designed with customers and stakeholders are more likely to tap into the best available knowledge and partnerships, generating greater chances of success.
A good example of this is Impossible Foods. The company’s quest to develop an alternative to beef was driven by big-picture environmental concerns, in light of the impact that cattle production has on water, climate and biodiversity. Their breakthrough success was based on a well-designed plant-based product which looked, tasted and even bled like red meat; committed investors; and a strategic rollout that built robust customer demand. But the company also built a broader strategy around these business fundamentals — engaging environmental, health and consumer groups; partnering with leading chefs and restaurants; and investing in local jobs at its manufacturing facility in Oakland, California. By understanding and tapping into the expertise of existing actors in the food system, Impossible Foods was able to roll out a successful innovation which may significantly change the system itself.
3) Redefine your customers and partners
Building the Global Goals into a company’s core mission may require a new perspective on the company’s customers, partners and products. At Impossible Foods, the company described its “real product” as “a thriving planet for future generations” — viewing their commercial product as a means to achieve this end. Africa Improved Foods worked to create opportunities and impact along its supply chain by partnering with 24,000 Rwandan farmers and the UN World Food Programme to create opportunities and impact along its supply chain, and targeting a growing urban African customer segment with fortified cereal products. In India, Microsoft partnered with an international research institute and the state government of Andhra Pradesh to roll out an Intelligent Cloud service that helped farmers increase their yields by 30%. These companies set a big-picture goal, then thought creatively about who would have the knowledge and talent to help them achieve it.
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The best ideas for socially-impactful products may come from sources on the ground. Investing in locally-based innovation — such as the established tech hubs in Nairobi and Bangalore as well as emerging ones such as Vietnam and Nigeria, can help accelerate the development of new solutions. Governments can partner with investors and entrepreneurs to create the infrastructure, policy and talent needed for thriving “innovation ecosystems”. International organisations can also provide platforms to bring the right partners together to accelerate mission-driven innovation — as seen in the UN World Food Programme’s Innovation Accelerator, UNICEF’s Innovation Fund, and the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Governments, investors, startups and others can often find the right partners through these collaboration platforms.
Many tech companies are clearly making an effort to contribute to the global public good. But the impact of the tech sector on that front doesn’t yet equal its reach. Tech companies bring an ability to innovate and scale impact, together with an optimistic mindset and bold willingness to disrupt established norms, which is greatly needed to accelerate progress on many global issues. At the same time, the tech sector can learn and benefit greatly from the expertise and partnership of existing stakeholders. The result can be new products and services which may generate wins for business as well as society, bringing much-needed disruption to the future of the planet.