Can You Innovate For Social Good AND Profit? Yes, With These Three Skills

Shelly Dutton

Pensive businesswoman with arms crossed in office windowEverything and everyone on this planet is impacted by technology one way or another. Amputees are receiving personalized prosthetics with the creative use of 3D printing. Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles promise a more sustainable, accessible way of transportation. Precise agriculture hopes to feed a growing population despite dwindling natural resources. Then there are artificial intelligence, next-generation robots, and sensors automating mundane and sometimes hazardous aspects of our jobs.

However, with every good technology there’s always potential for misuse. We’ve all heard the stories. Governments are tracking unsuspecting citizens. Fear of robots sending millions to unemployment lines is settling in. Even Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk warned about the potential dangers of autonomous weapons – including assassinations, national destabilization, subdued populations, and selective killing of targeted ethnic groups – if placed in the wrong hands.

Knowing such risks, should we fear technology innovation entirely? Not quite. As Melinda Gates wrote in her recent New York Times op-ed, “Technology is neither good nor bad, but it is powerful. It’s up to the people who develop and use it to determine what effect it has on the world. It’s our job to encourage innovators to use their power in ways that improve the world.”

The social good and profitability goes hand in hand: 3 ways to balance it all

The key is to search for solutions that solve problems and add value to the global society. By infusing collaboration and an agenda powered by passion (not multinational shareholders) into the core culture, companies can yield better results for the social good of everyone they touch as well as the corporate bottom line.

In a paper published this year, the European Commission detailed the emergence of social innovation that encompasses open source communications, the maker movement, and corporate citizenship. Not only does this approach create economic growth and employment opportunities, but it also represents a new model that fosters environmental sustainability, equality, and social inclusion. The reward for respecting each of these areas? The right to profit.

How can your business strike a balance between the social good and profitability when it comes to innovation? The European Commission advises three focus areas that can help show you the way.

  1. Democratization of innovation. Technology is typically at its best when a new wave of change is ripped from the grips of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed to the general public. This is why the Internet has become so revolutionary. What started as an interesting business tool has now become a way to democratize publishing, broadcasting, and communication. Just think: Amazon, WordPress, Netflix, Hulu, among others would not exist without the Internet. If you want to innovate and deliver products and services that your customers cannot live without, you should democratize with open innovation strategies and platforms for collaboration.
  1. Supply chains for good. While the latest digital technology pays particular attention to creating sustainable, safe supply networks, information generation and analysis are still weak in many enterprises. And this is despite the rallying cry from consumers that businesses should do better if they want their wallet share! With a concerted focus on brand integrity, social impact, consumer behavior, and supplier decisions, everyone in the business network can manufacture and deliver goods while bringing value to the social good every step of the way.
  1. Corporate citizenship. The social contract between companies and the communities they serve is changing how the entire business world operates as customers and activists become more vocal – thanks to social media. Even startups tend to focus on the expectations of the whole society. To stay competitive, businesses of all sizes and industries must consider incorporating social and environmental concerns at the center of their business strategies and decision making.

Are Melinda Gates and the European Commission on to something? Is it really possible to innovate for both the social good and profits? Share your thoughts below!

Want more thought leadership on innovation? See Business Networks: The Platforms for Future Innovation.