I heard Paul Polman, Unilever’s departed CEO, speak at an event recently. Against a fevered backdrop of global frustration over climate degradation, increasing social inequality, political uncertainty and the rise of nationalism, Polman talked about bringing humanity back into business. “We’re in such a rat race to satisfy [short-term business demands] we’ve forgotten to do the things that are the foundations of society.”
But is it really up to business to provide the solutions to these global and local challenges?
In his annual letter to the CEOs of the firms in which they invest, Blackrock CEO Larry Fink followed up his 2018 call for companies to articulate and pursue their social and environmental purpose, by noting “society is increasingly looking to companies, both public and private, to address pressing social and economic issues”.
When we opened the first Allia Future Business Centre in Cambridge in late 2013, cleantech was an emerging cluster and we were one of the first incubators to champion social innovation. Much has changed over the past 5 years and its hugely gratifying to see the growth in social and tech for good ventures. In this time we’ve supported over 1,600 ventures to start and grow their business and deliver greater impact – addressing issues from food poverty to energy storage solutions, female education to small farm agritech. And while rubbing shoulders with these purpose driven founders and teams continues to inspire me daily – it’s too simple to say that innovation and start-ups are the sole solution.
For me, the answer has to be rooted in collaboration – between governments, private corporates, civil society and start-ups – joining the missing dots and building lasting sustainable solutions. The world needs strong multi-sector partnerships to achieve the type of change envisioned by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Achieving the Global Goals is unquestionably a moral imperative but also presents a significant commercial opportunity estimated at $12 trillion a year in revenue and cost savings and 380 million new jobs by 2030.
In difficult times the entrepreneurial spirit comes into its own. Founders are born problem solvers: time and again I see entrepreneurs fuelled by their own personal experiences to solve issues they have encountered. Necessity is the mother of invention after all, so it makes perfect sense that in times where there are many problems, consummate problem-solvers will come into their own.
But how do we ensure that social innovation and technology with purpose is fully supported? What do they need in order to easily start, confidently grow and successfully scale their impact and their financial sustainability? Collaboration. We need government to champion and support this level of innovation prioritising impact alongside GDP; we need big business to listen, adopt, innovate alongside, financially support and invest in new solutions; and we need civil society to articulate the needs and demands of those we need to find solutions for.
Collaboration is key. Allia has worked for over 20 years bringing together business, government, civil society and other organisations to accelerate the solutions for the change we need. From pioneering community bonds in 1999, to launching the Retail Charity Bond platform enabling charities to access funding on London Stock Exchange and creating the first centre dedicated to supporting social and environmental innovation. As we launch a new programme next month, Future 20 – designed to identify and scale 20 of the UK’s most promising tech for good ventures, a key aim has been connecting them with a network of multi-sector partnerships, all of whom are equally passionate about addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Through such collaboration our individual ability to accelerate the impact of new solutions grows exponentially. And hopefully inspires the next generation to find further solutions.
As Paul Polman so eloquently said, “I believe in purpose and doing purpose very well will ultimately lead to profit. Businesses’ prime objective is to serve society, we need to make it better. On an environmental level that means regenerative; on a human level that means inclusion. “
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