How social innovation is increasingly entering the business mainstream


Today many countries suffer from high and rising inequality with many citizens unable to fully benefit from economic progress. Of course this is a major concern for governments around the world, but business also has an important role to play in addressing these challenges. A new report provides an important tool for our discussions on how businesses can support a growth process that is both inclusive and sustainable.

The WEF’s (World Economic Forum) report, “Social Innovation: A Guide to Achieving Corporate and Societal Value”, profiling companies helping underserved communities and showing why social innovation is becoming an increasingly relevant strategy for companies to pursue. The report illustrates what social innovation strategies and business models look like, what the range of opportunities are, and the business benefits companies can get from pursuing them. It also covers best practices from companies on how best to implement such models in ways that support business goals.

Social innovation is defined by the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Social Innovation as “the application of innovative, practical, sustainable, market-based approaches to benefit society in general, and low-income or underserved populations in particular”. The report released in collaboration with Oliver Wyman draws from workshops and interviews with over 30 executives from major multinationals and leading companies and advice from the Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Social Innovation to offer recommendations for companies.

Case studies include:

Companies that are creating new products, services and distribution channels to serve consumers that are underserved today. Allianz is offering insurance products to over 57 million consumers in emerging markets. MasterCard is connecting millions of Egyptians to the financial system.

Companies that are working on initiatives that strengthen their supply chains while increasing incomes of their suppliers including small farmers. For example, Nestlé which is augmenting incomes of 63,000 farmers in 11 countries; ITC’s supply chain is serving 4 million farmers across 40,000 villages in India.

Companies that are investing in increasing education access and employability in ways that secure and diversify their existing and future talent pools. For example, Intercorp is helping create access to education to over 60,000 students and CISCO is training 1 million students a year on IT skills.

Companies that are using finance as a tool to create social impact while at the same time, building profitable businesses. Centrica’s £10 million ($14.1 million) impact investment fund is investing in energy SMEs that create social and financial value and Barclays is using a £25 million ($35.2 million) Social Innovation Facility to incentivize and support its business units to pursue social innovation ideas.

According to Simon Cooper, Partner, Head of the Social Impact Practice at Oliver Wyman UK, “Social innovation is still at an early stage of development. There are examples of successes, but these companies have often had to pursue a challenging and bespoke path to achieving this. We don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution to initiating or scaling social innovation, but by studying those who have succeeded we have identified key drivers that all companies can learn from. We hope that by presenting this framework, and making it real through practical case studies, more companies can identify and pursue their own unique path into social innovative opportunities.”

The United Nations recently launched the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), offering an opportune framework for many more companies to adopt such initiatives, alongside civil society leaders, governments and social entrepreneurs. Companies can use insights from the examples and best practices shared in this report to design initiatives that contribute to a number of SDGs relating to poverty reduction or access to food, health, education, energy and sanitation.


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