• Social innovators have risen to prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic for how they’ve responded to the immediate needs of communities around the world.
  • For an inclusive and sustainable recovery, we need to acknowledge and support these sustainability pioneers and their trusted relationships in society.
  • The Schwab Foundation's Annual Report shows impact of the leading social innovators and platform collaborations such as the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs.

No-one knows better than those working amongst vulnerable and excluded communities that the last two years have created unprecedented changes in the ways in which we work and interact, demanding greater levels of resourcefulness and resilience from all of us. Social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs have risen to the occasion magnificently.

The story has become a familiar one. When COVID-19 struck, social innovators who were already working in the last mile to deliver essential services, often in resource-starved settings, were forced to change up a gear, often pivoting their operations to provide additional support to stricken communities as government systems strained to breaking point.

Proving extraordinarily resilient, these innovators have progressed in addressing both the immediate needs of the pandemic and as well as the long-term social challenges in their communities. Their stories are both inspirational and instructive.

An impact that counts in the millions

To quantify some of the collective impact of these social actors, the 2020-21 Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship Annual Report evaluated the work of its 2019 and 2020 Awardees – the Foundation annually recognizes individuals across sectors who are driving and championing social innovation. It found that many of them have initiated novel responses often joining forces to achieve the impact that was needed. Among the highlights are 15.1 million people benefiting from financial inclusion, 18 million providers, carers and workers supported by child health innovation programmes, and 7.3 million benefitting from sustainable farming, clean energy and healthcare in rural areas.

Most awardees have gradually been able to resume long-term work, leveraging the learnings of those first months of the crisis. Among the main challenges affecting their work during this period, as reported in the evaluation, were operational, funding and policy factors, but also the increased demand for healthcare, education, nutrition, safety and income as communities faced the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.

The next chapter, turning these learnings into greater impact

Now, as the world turns towards the challenges of driving an equitable, inclusive and sustainable recovery – which will be the focus of the upcoming World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit (SDIS) – the world needs the energy and innovation of social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs more than ever.

According to the latest estimates, COVID-19 in 2020 pushed over 100 million people back into extreme poverty. An equivalent of 255 million full-time jobs were lost and 101 million youth fell below minimum reading levels. There is concern that this has set us back in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. But while countries around the world battle new variants of the virus, vaccination and public health responses, as well as the economic and psychological fallout, coordinating effective responses has proved problematic.

There is a key opportunity to learn here from the experiences of those who have been innovating for sustainability on the front lines of the crisis. For example, the World Economic Forum COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs recently released its India Top-50 Last Mile Responders, showcasing the work of Indian social entrepreneurs during the crippling second wave in that country earlier this year and offering vital lessons on response mechanisms for other regions battling a recurrence of the virus.

Furthermore, social innovators are catalytic in bringing entrepreneurial energy into the mainstream, creating new markets and demonstrating new ways of doing development. Increasingly, we’re also seeing the impact of corporate social intrapreneurs – business leaders in multinational or regional companies who drive the development of new products and initiatives to drive their companies’ ESG agendas towards real social and environmental impact. We also see leaders in public sector harnessing the power of social innovation and social entrepreneurs to create public good through policy regulation or public initiatives.

SDIS will highlight the voices of sustainability pioneers, including Schwab Foundation Social Innovators, Technology Pioneers Uplink innovators and Young Scientists who are tackling some of the world’s biggest problems. From job creation and refugees to food provision and mental and public health, these leaders will showcase how we can make real progress on the complex challenges of this moment.

Passionate and deeply driven to effect change, these individuals are often inspired by new technologies, pioneering research or alternative ways of doing things. If we care to pay attention, they are role modelling the adoption of the new social and economic standards we need to advance the SDGs and showing us how to remove systemic barriers.

Continuing to stand by social entrepreneurs will be vital

Despite their oversized role in the pandemic, many social entrepreneurs and innovators are themselves struggling to meet the increased demands for their work and services in these difficult times. This has led to unprecedented collaboration from social innovators and social impact organizations, helping to rally and consolidate the support needed for those on the frontlines. We must continue to scale this up.

The Schwab Foundation supports two vital networks of this kind: Catalyst 2030, a global movement of social entrepreneurs working collaboratively towards the SDGs; and the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs. With 86 members supporting 100,000 social entrepreneurs, the Alliance is the largest coalition in the social innovation sector driving new discussions and agendas, and fostering system-level collaboration and influencing. Our partner in the Alliance, Porticus CEO Melanie Schultz van Haegen, started the year stating: "2021 had to be the year of breakthrough collaboration.” Mid-way into a year filled multiple social, political and planetary crises, it is clear that this will have to be the theme for the decade.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

We see social innovators as providing possibly the biggest spark to ignite the kind of energy our planet needs to recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic. But for many in the social innovation and entrepreneurship environment, the question of the moment is: what will it take to truly integrate these leaders and pioneers into the mainstream? The answer will not come from one source, but from many voices being allowed into the conversations to inform that path forward.

Leaders unsatisfied with the status quo and impatient for change exist in all sectors and have clearly demonstrated alternative futures are possible. We will need all sectors to listen to them, learn from them and work with them to collectively create the inclusive future we need.