By involving outsiders online to solve problems, particularly marketing, firms aim to change attitudes to sustainability
Over the past month, we’ve seen a wave of businesses pioneering new ways of putting into practice the old adage that a problem shared can be a problem halved by tapping into the wisdom of the crowds who populate the online world.
The shift has thrown wide open a range of business challenges – waste, water, product design and consumer use – that have long been the relatively private preoccupation of a handful of inhouse experts and their external aficionados.
Of course, the willingness of business to collaborate on sustainability issues with outside organisations and individuals is nothing new. But what is different is just how public companies are being about their business priorities and research projects, and the strategic role that they see online open forums playing in helping to find the solutions.
This week Unilever will host its Sustainable Living Lab, a 24-hour, global online event aiming to harvest fresh insights across four strategic areas of focus, including sustainable sourcing, production and distribution and consumer behaviour change. The event follows the launch in March of a permanent platform dedicated to Open Innovation. The idea is to extend and deepen interactions with external collaborators on a series of “wants” – 10 key priorities set by its sustainable living plan.
But if crowdsourcing solutions to sustainability is the new game in town, Unilever is not the only (or oldest) player. April alone has seen the launch of IdeasBrewery by Heineken, a new phase of Tetra Pak’s open-source renewables challenge, and Michael Bloomberg’s plan for New York to host a summer of sustainable crowdsourcing during a Greener, Greater Hackathon.
Earlier projects – such as Nike and Best Buy’s Green XChange, GE’sEcomagination Challenge and Desso’s Circle of Architects – primed the canvas for businesses keen to capitalise on public problem solving.
So what’s driving the most recent trend and are all companies embracing it in the same way?
While there’s no single catalyst, four converging factors have made online, open-source innovation a more serious option for sustainability research and development.
The first is that enlightened companies are increasingly aware that sustainability is not an optional extra, but an interlocking series of imperatives. And with that comes pressure to find bigger, better solutions to challenges identified by the business.
Related to this, the second factor, as Roger Leech, Unilever’s open innovation scouting director, puts it, is about locating “external scouting partners”. New online platforms such as the company’s Open Innovation provide a mechanism to “identify and create stronger interactions” with a huge community of entrepreneurs, academics, NGOs and other businesses.
The third is that there is a strategic need, particularly for brand-led companies, to co-opt consumers into solutions to climate change and resource scarcity because, when it comes to measuring a business’s total environmental impacts, consumers are typically three-quarters of the problem.
The fourth factor concerns corporate and brand reputation. Co-creation is a powerful marketing tool, since consumers are naturally better disposed towards a company when they have been given the chance to shape its future. Companies, in turn, are also more likely to benefit from much deeper consumer insights than any conventional market research could provide, as Sony’s Morgan David has pointed out.
Sony’s work in this area is worth noting because, alongside Unilever, it highlights the two principal ways in which businesses are aligning open innovation, social media and sustainability.
Sony’s two online campaigns, Open Planet Ideas and FutureScapes, employ crowdsourcing as a mechanic to generate new sustainable technology ideas. Primarily, however, they are about effecting behaviour change – and ultimately, greater market demand for green products – by directly engaging new audiences in thinking about the future challenges we all face.
This approach has also been used to similar effect by Tetra Pak and WWF to reach UK schoolchildren.
By contrast, the likes of Unilever and GE are leveraging social media to source inchoate ideas from which to build proven solutions to clearly defined briefs. The advantage of this is that it’s much more cost-efficient to deal with known quantities than risky undeveloped ones. The two main challenges with this, according to Unilever’s Roger Leech, are: “You need to define precisely what you want before you ask for it. And as solutions rarely come from a single individual or organisation, the key is building a network of solutions partners that can work collaboratively around a specific project.”
The latest application of crowdsourcing by the likes of Unilever and Heineken also differs from some of the early adopters in one other key respect. The new digital platforms are not self-contained online initiatives driven by corporate social responsibility, but extensions of existing business functions driven by a competitive, commercial strategy to do well by doing good. It’s interesting to note in this context that while Unilever’s sourcing process is public, submissions are private.
This development is heading in a direction that bodes well for sustainable business – even if it is still too early to evaluate its effectiveness. One of the biggest challenges that open innovation helps to address is a change of internal mindset – in particular, the tendency in many businesses to silo and stymie natural synergies between strategy, science, and stakeholder communication.
But there are also benefits at a broader, societal level. For opening up a business to a whole new world of ideas and connections can only strengthen the case for competing commercially on sustainability. And eroding the boundaries between that business and its consumer-supplier-stakeholder universe can only help to reinforce the ineluctable connection that all businesses today have with the changing environment around them.
Originally posted on Guardian.co.uk