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How social innovators are inspiring change at Davos

social innovators, Pictured here is a panel with four members at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting

Social innovators are uniquely placed to respond to the challenges of the communities they serve. Image: World Economic Forum / Boris Bal.

Francois Bonnici
Director, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship; Head of Foundations, World Economic Forum
Pavitra Raja
Community Lead, CEO Action Group On Nature Pillar, World Economic Forum
Hilde Schwab
Chairperson and Co-Founder, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Social enterprises are a growing force in the global economy, with demand for inclusive solutions and trusted leaders.
  • A record number of 50 social innovators will participate in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.
  • Their diverse voices will showcase the power of social enterprises to tackle challenges of inequality, environmental and public health risks.

As the world looks beyond the devastation of COVID-19 and confronts fresh dislocations caused by climate change, economic turmoil and war, the urgent need to bolster efforts towards the sustainable development agenda and prevent life-changing disruptions in society has never been greater.

It is clear that 2022 is going to be a pivotal year for both humanity and the planet. Stakeholders across society will need to redouble their efforts if they are to restore trust and build systems to help the most vulnerable in society, who find themselves trapped in a series of interlocking crises, threatening to push an additional 263 million into extreme poverty this year.

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Social innovators, whose operations are underpinned by the principles of equity and justice, have a vital role to play in this process by offering new approaches and disruptive services in situations where traditional institutions and markets have failed. Because they prioritize long-term social objectives, they can tackle deep-seated problems in areas such as environmental sustainability, health, education, and rural development.

Social innovators bring diversity to Davos

Transformative leaders from across the social innovation sector, including corporate and public social intrapreneurs and thought leaders, will be represented at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in record numbers, bringing a multiplicity of diverse voices to the global policy discussion for the crucial period ahead.

In all, 50 social innovators supported by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship will be on the ground in Davos – more than twice as many attendees than any previous annual meeting – and their contributions will be woven across the event’s programme, as well as through a range of private dialogues and meetings with world leaders.

This shift in focus at Davos is not only about social responsibility. It also reflects “response-ability” – in other words, the fact that social innovators use all resources at their disposal, whether in business, public sector, or the social sector to drive inclusion and positive environmental impact.

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The perspectives brought by social innovators and their proximity to citizens and communities they work in means that they have a unique agility to respond to the challenges of social inequalities and conserving environmental ecosystems.

Their inclusive governance approach in working with groups who face barriers because of gender, race, ability, or economic class stands in marked contrast to the “helicopter” view that can emanate from the headquarters of multinational corporations or large multilateral organizations.

Social innovators are helping communities

The results speak for themselves. Over the past two decades, a total of 722 million lives have been directly improved by the work of the Schwab Foundation’s community of over 400 social innovators. The work of this group of leaders has helped people in rural areas and across the cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as in socially excluded communities within Europe and North America.

The range of opportunities being created by imaginative values-based enterprises are vast. They include the use of AI to build education initiatives in Asia, micro-finance schemes for African farmers, novel healthcare models promoting access and equity in health services, and mobilizing young people and citizens to determine their own future and become agents of change.

Over the past two decades, a total of 722 million lives have been directly improved by the work of the Schwab Foundation’s community of over 400 social innovators.

And the proven solutions keep coming. The Schwab Foundation’s two newest awardees – Pranshu Singhal of Karo Sambhav and Adriana Mallet of SAS Brasil – exemplify the imaginative reach of social innovators, with their respective plans for waste recycling in India and telemedicine in Brazil. Elsewhere, others are mobilizing modern tools in truly unique ways, like Roya Baghai of High Resolves who is using her platform Videos for Change to amplify the voice of young people who have creatively engaged with social issues and are catalysing positive change in the world.

Partnerships can amplify impact of social innovators

Today, social enterprises are a growing force in the global economy. Significantly, reliance on the services they provide has increased during the pandemic, given the mounting economic and social challenges faced by under-served communities around the world. In Europe alone it is estimated that the social economy includes 2.8 million entities and is responsible for over 13.6 million paid jobs, representing as much as 9.9% of all employment in some countries.

Yet despite the catalytic role social entrepreneurs can play in transforming systems, until now their role as agents of change has not been sufficiently recognised by governments and big business. The fact is they could achieve much more with the right support and financial resources.

One way of scaling their impact is to build ecosystems that enable greater partnership and sharing of knowledge.

Such an initiative was pioneered during the pandemic with the launch in April 2020 of the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs. The coalition took shape at a time when social enterprises were frequently playing a vital role as first responders in helping people in society hit hardest by the disease.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

By coming together and working with partners in big business and multilateral organizations, the Alliance has been able to amplify the impact of social entrepreneurs around the world – for example, by encouraging large corporations to “buy social" and showcasing policy tools and programmes that governments can take up to unlock the social economy.

As a result, the Alliance today counts over 90 members who collectively represent and support up to 100,000 social entrepreneurs throughout the world.

Looking to the future, the Alliance now plans to shift and broaden its focus beyond COVID as the Global Alliance for Social Entrepreneurship. It will leverage the trust, insight, and partnerships that have emerged since its launch at the start of the worst health emergency in a century to advance an inclusive and sustainable future for all by engaging private and public sector leaders in support of the social innovation movement.

For the multinational business partners that have joined the Alliance – SAP, Unilever, Deloitte and Microsoft – this is also represents an opportunity to embed partnerships with social entrepreneurs into their ESG strategies.

By really listening to the people they work with, social innovators are delivering viable alternatives to tackle the intractable problems of inequality, exclusion and environmental degradation – and building deep trust in the process.

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