How social innovation and business can work together to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, and unlock their economic value
This article was written following Europe Tomorrow’s participation at the “Conference on the Sustainable Development Goals” at the 2017 European Business Summit in Brussels: a yearly meeting of policy makers, business leaders and academics in the EU. We were invited to speak about the topic “Achieving the SDGs through social innovation“.
Check out the interview with Florian Guillaume, our co-founder.
The SDGs are a set of 17 goals set out to “end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all”. The goals were established to address social, economic, and ecological sustainability problems facing the world. Since they were adopted in 2015, the goals have been commonly referred to as the mandate for sustainability policy or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) by public and private institutions.
“The economic value to be unlocked by the SDGs and inclusive business models has been estimated to be USD$12 trillion, annually, by the year 2030.”
There is much debate and discussion in academia and institutions in moving toward defining the term, or sector, of Social Innovation. The emerging theme in the literature however, defines social innovation as anything designed to benefit communities and society as a whole, rather than individuals, through using or creating innovative ways to solve problems – or create opportunities – regarding social, economic, or environmental issues. Of course, these issues being interrelated.
While the search for a universal definition continues, social innovation and social entrepreneurs are getting on with it. Generating income for their employees, while focusing on delivering solutions and opportunities to improve the lives of individuals and society as a whole. Social innovations are often grassroots initiatives. Community members solving problems for communities, on the ground, where the understanding of the problems being solved is the strongest.
If we strip everything back to basics, a business has one key objective: profit. Whether that is for a public company distributing those profits to shareholders, or a private company generating monetary wealth for its owners.
In recent years however, businesses are becoming increasingly concerned with sustainable development (the UN’s SDGs now often cited as a practical definition), and CSR. At the 2017 European Business Summit, business leaders engaged strongly in the narrative that the SDGs weren’t only a part of traditional CSR, but in fact a value proposition and a huge opportunity for businesses.
It is widely accepted in 2017 that social and economic inequality, and a failing environment is bad for business. As such, businesses are looking to social innovation to help them meeting the SDGs and improve their CSR scorecards.
With so many social innovations starting at a grass-roots level, at a community level, this results in some obvious strengths and weaknesses in getting innovations and solutions off the ground.
Social innovations often being created by community members for communities, the overall social impact is naturally going to be higher, tailor made, and in full consideration of complexities within any given societal problem.
However grassroots social innovators can often lack the commercial, communication, and financial resources to get otherwise high-impact projects executed.
It is in these strengths and weakness that exists the opportunity for business and social innovation to work together to meet the SDGs.
The economic value to be unlocked by the SDGs and inclusive business models has been estimated to be USD$12 trillion, annually, by the year 2030
This being accurate, there exists an enormous opportunity for businesses to benefit from making the SDGs part of their core business functions, rather than a CSR afterthought.
Social entrepreneurs and innovators can show businesses how to make working towards the SDGs a profitable activity when part of the core function of an organisation.
Likewise businesses can partner with grassroots social innovators to lend commercial, communication, and financial resources to get high-impact social innovations off the ground.
 UN SDGs