Don’t just innovate: How to leverage existing ideas to solve society’s challenges

  • Don’t just innovate, leverage existing ideas

Right now there is a real push for innovation, no matter whether a business is for-profit or not-for-profit.

But rather than focus on always producing new ideas, there is scope to use existing innovations to solve some of society’s most pressing problems.

This is important because often, it’s the resource-constrained not-for-profits and social businesses that are responsible for tackling critical issues such as poverty. So it makes sense to draw on existing solutions, rather than spend money reinventing the wheel.

Collaboration counts

One example of this concept in practice is a joint venture between French dairy company Danone, working with microfinance social business Grameen. Together they have built a yoghurt factory in Bangladesh that produces yoghurt which is enriched with vital nutrients, to help address malnutrition in the country. According to UNICEF, Bangladesh has some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world.

Under this business model, local dairy farms produce milk for the yoghurt. The factory creates 1600 jobs and the yoghurt is sold in a door-to-door distribution model, with sales people earning a 10 per cent commission on everything they sell. The business takes back what it doesn’t sell so sales people are not disadvantaged.

While Danone had the know-how and technology to build the dairy plant and produce the yoghurt, Grameen brought knowledge about how to adapt to the local market conditions. For instance, the distribution model the microfinance agency implemented uses a direct sales model, in the absence of supermarkets in rural areas. It also contributed credibility and brand equity, as Bangladeshi people know Grameen.

Closer to home

The Grameen and Danone joint venture is a great global example of applying existing solutions to common challenges. There are other instances closer to home of collaborations between organisations to address social issues.

One example is a project by Specialisterne Australia that aims to create 12,000 careers for people on the autism spectrum. The project, a joint initiative between the software firm SAP and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE), aims to provide careers for people with autism in areas like software testing, programming, system administration and data quality assurance. These are all highly sought after roles, ones that require enormous attention to detail.

The Specialisterne program was launched in Australia in 2015. Since then HPE has engaged more than 50 staff through the program in software testing, programming and cyber security roles in Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra. SAP has launched Autism at Work intern programs in Sydney and Canberra.

It’s another example of using existing business practices and systems to produce a practical answer to a societal problem, providing rewarding careers for those on the autism spectrum.

Jay Hobbs, employment services manager, Specialisterne Australia, says companies are at their best when they innovate and employ people who can add value to operations.

“People on the autism spectrum are remarkably skilled in their area of interest and constitute a largely untapped pool of talent. The partnership between Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, SAP and Specialisterne is designed to allow the sharing of best practices in creating supportive work environments where people on the autism spectrum can excel,” says Hobbs.

“We aim to give extremely capable people an opportunity and to generate real understanding of autism in communities around the world,” he adds.

As these examples show, there are many advantages from making the most of ideas, tools and business approaches that are already in existence, rather than always seeking to build something new.

As Dr Anna Krzeminska, strategy expert at UQ Business School says, “it’s about understanding what’s already out there and scaling it up to create social impact.”

Doing this, she says, requires collaboration and staying smart to solve issues for everyone’s benefit. And an important part of this is turning perceived disadvantages into advantages, as Specialisterne Australia has done.

“It’s social enterprises that have the real insights into society’s challenges and it’s about drawing on these insights in a new way to solve community issues,” she explains, adding that there are few intermediaries connecting for-profit with not-for-profit businesses for this. Usually, relationships form serendipitously rather than through formal channels, given the dearth of systems that could facilitate these connections.

So there is potential for intermediaries to be set up that can play a greater role connecting social enterprises and for-profit businesses, for the benefit of both sides and the community as a whole. It’s an opportunity that cannot be ignored, given the scale of social problems right around the world.

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