Harbinger Consultants

Creative Sustainability :: Place, People, Product, Potential, Partnership + Pollinating

REPORT | Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Doing Good

The opportunities for continuing learning and professional development in Brisbane are vast – the city can boast an entrenched culture of sharing research, information and ideas, often at low or no cost. Over the last few weeks, we’ve attended several seminars presenting ideas about entrepreneurship, innovation, sustainability and social impact. It is the stuff of complex systems and complex problem solving that tests our capabilities for adaptation and ‘thrival’. At the Asia Pacific Centre for Sustainable Enterprise conference (APCSE), ‘Economic Growth, Climate Change and the G20’, international speakers shared their concerns and visions for a dynamic and sustainable future. The attendees expressed their dismay that climate change and sustainability had been omitted from the G20 Summit agenda. The G20 Summit was hosted in Brisbane over the weekend of 14-16 November. Many speakers at the APCSE Conference highlighted issues of resource scarcity, social inequality and environmental crisis, stressing the importance of strategic economic adaptation and transition. There were also more optimistic messages referring to the economic opportunities presented by deep decarbonisation. The overall message of the event was that ‘business as usual’ is akin to ‘sleepwalking to disaster’.

The conference also featured critical attention on the ‘growth myth’ which is deployed as an excuse for the acceleration and escalation of production at the expense of environmental and social security. As Professor Ian Lowe said, “Growth is very efficient for creating inequality”. It’s this contradiction that highlights the mythic dimensions of growth; this was further highlighted by Ian Dunlop who explained that, according to the World Growth Index, growth actually ceased in the 1970s. Brian Czech, author of Supply Shock, also highlighted issues associated wtih growth and noted that conventional economics did not offer insights into the nature of the problem. Amid some of the doom and gloom, there were bright lights, such as an introduction to Pollinate Energy, a social enterprise that facilitates energy access for poor people living in urban India. The group has plans to expand into other complimentary well-being enhancements for India’s poor. Please read Director of the APCSE, Professor Jeremy Williams’ report at The Conversation online for more of an overview, plus a three minute video wrap up is also available.

Clearly, there is a need to address business practice and governance in ways that can cultivate prosperity together with social and environmental capital. This was one of the messages of the G20 Innovation Hub, an event running parallel with the G20, which highlighted the role of social enterprise, innovation and impact in the reshaping of economies and business. Presenting a showcase of social innovators, the Hub also ran a series of lunchtime lectures to promote discussion about social innovation and enterprise. The lectures presented perspectives from business, non-profits and government to highlight some of the adaptive challenges facing all parties involved in social impact work. Social enterprises which were showcased as part of a marketplace included Fairbridge (WA), ItaliaCamp, Life Without Barriers, The Difference Incubator, 180 Studios and the Academy for Young Entrepreneurs, Substation 33, TOMS, Start Some Good, Digital Storytellers, Milaana / IMPACT, Ability Enterprises, QSEC, Common Ground and Entekcomm. It was a truly inspiring and energetic sharing of purpose and problem solving. Additionally, demonstrations of Queensland Globe were presented as a special satellite event.

To be efficacious in the current policy and economic climate, social innovation must focus on social impact. That is, there is a need to emphasise impact rather than inputs. This was also stressed by Sandy Blackburn-Wright in her recent lecture about impact investing. Many organisations continue to measure the least relevant aspects such as inputs and outputs, such as service delivery, profit or funding, rather than the real and longitudinal changes they foster. If I was to introduce a concept for inclusion in our dashboard reporting, it would be a social impact scorecard. Many organisations are addressing their environmental impact, and obviously, their economic performance, but relatively few are addressing their social impact. The impact investing approach was also leading government to invest in organisations that are achieving outcomes. One of the messages of the lectures was that effective measures and measurement are vital for evidence informed approaches. Evidence and evaluation are vital for achieving longer term sustainable change and creating value. However, as one of the speakers warned, it’s important not the engage in measurement fetish as ‘survival’ itself was a demonstration of relevance and adaptability. However, with so much change (or ‘reform’) having occurred in social policy, many organisations are struggling to adapt and there is a need to address capability and resilience in order to maintain the necessary social supports for vulnerable people and communities. The need for leadership and leading practice was acknowledged.

These social innovation and environmental sustainability concerns interleave with other discussions and presentations about innovation, leadership and enterprise presented at an Australian Centre for Enterpreneurship Research (ACER) seminar, Dimensions of Innovation, at QUT. The seminar led by the Harvard Business School’s Josh Lerner mapped the dimensions of innovation and enterprise systems through the findings of major research undertakings. Together with a panel of speakers, Lerner explored the role of uncertainty in innovation, indicating a more risk exposed environment than would be comfortable for many. It was necessary to conduct experiments and he questioned whether it was possible to develop more hybrid and collaborative models, such as combined venture capital and corporate R&D, that are conducive to experimentation and learning. Entrepreneurship itself can be seen as experimentation with an apparent Schumpeterian inflection of creative destruction. The seminar also addressed policy issues and expressed concern about Australia’s relatively low investment in innovation and research. Another repeated refrain was about the need for evaluation and how policies, programs and projects required evaluation as a matter of routine.

A particularly important point made during the seminar was about the need for businesses to develop innovation systems. Dr Michael Rosemann has found that many businesses have established and focused on enterprise systems, but have failed to build an innovation system which will create new experiences. While enterprise systems have focused on cost resilience, innovation systems will enhance revenue resilience. Some interesting and useful aphorisms peppered the discussion such as: evidence vs confidence (or eminence); learn from success rather than ‘fix problems’. The European Living Labs were offered as an example of incubating innovation and innovative practices. And, of course, all the ‘co’ words that are reshaping our working relationships, received a good airing: collaboration, co-design, co-production etc.

In a question, a member of the audience posed a question about social innovation and enterprise. One of the speakers, as a researcher, proposed that business can address social issues and needs, like homelessness, and that through innovation ‘it could be possible to find jobs for the homeless’. This raises alarm bells about how those entrenched in economics and business studies address social impact and issues. If addressing homelessness was simply a matter of finding jobs, then it would be easily and readily dealt with. So there is a need to address social complexity as well as complex problems as complex problems which require interdisciplinary collaboration and complex problem solving processes. Social scientists and researchers must be included in the research teams addressing social innovation and impact; propositions must be evidence informed and well evaluated. As policy scholar, R.A.W. Rhodes has  stated, “[m]essy problems need messy solutions”. So ‘finding jobs for the homeless’ cannot be the whole corporate or management research response to addressing homelessness particularly as other systemic and structural issues impact on homelessness.

On a similar note, during the G20 Innovation Hub lunchtime lectures, a speaker from the UQ Business School Senior Lecturer Dr Lance Newey explained how his students challenged his learned faith in classical economic theory. In a compelling personal story, he explained how he had been trained in classical economics and associated theory. He went on to teach that economic theory in higher education, only to find that as his classrooms became more global – with students from diverse cultural backgrounds – his students were challenging the assumptions of such theory and policy. His students explained the impact of applied economics and policies based on those theories in their own countries and the resulting entrenched poverty and environmental destruction. It was a powerful story, like so many we have heard recently, that invites rethinking of economic systems and calls for a refreshed policy and systems drive in economics.

At ACER’s Global Entreprenership Seminar at QUT, the agenda included discussion of innovation and entrpreneurship in the university environment. It also explored the role government and research in developing innovation and entrepreneurship, stressing their role in value creation. Clustering emerged as an area warranting further consideration given Australia’s high proportion of small businesses and the need for growing medium sized businesses. There was some focus on QUT’s innovation ecosystem which has seen the development of small and award winning start ups, with particular emphasis on fluid approaches and contexts, such as lean start ups and start up garages. AT QUT, start ups have been supported through the establishment of competitions, incubators, accelerators and other catalysts in the university environment. Again the Living Lab was promoted as a workable model. The benefits for ‘adhocracy culture’ were also stressed; similarly, all the speakers made key points about the value of networks, culture, leadership and relationships.

And finally, in another lecture presented by the APCSE, we heard Dr Mark Glazebrook discuss his work leading corporate responsibility with BP. Dr Glazebrook worked with BP to initiate several programs that supported Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs. He continues to work with Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs as a private consultant. He stressed the role of purpose – both individual and organisational – in creating authentic environments and relationships, stating that it was a more useful grounding for innovation than ‘responsibility’ in developing corporate citizenship. Dr Glazebrook stressed the role of the Reconciliation Action Plan in guiding the work of corporate purpose programs as it sets out a more strategic approach to developing relationships and building purpose in a way that inflected across the whole organisation. The successes of the programs instigated by Dr Glazebrook include the development of OPAL fuel in partnership with remote communities seeking to eradicate petrol sniffing. The fuel was refined to remove volatile fumes, meaning no ‘high’ was possible. Other initiates included support for emerging businesses with growth potential and that multiplied the opportunities offered through Indigenous business procurement networks. This enabled Indigenous businesses to compete for business as suppliers to major companies with interests in remote and regional communities. Driven by a sense of purpose, while remaining responsive to complexity, then the challenge is to continue to make things better for all stakeholders. We even sampled some chips produced by an Indigenous business, Native Chip Company.

While innovation is not an end in itself, it is an essential ingredient for change, difference and success. It is not only about technology, but also about process and products – entrepreneurship is vitally part of the interplay and dynamic. The other elements of the ecosystem, as we heard over these last few weeks, are leadership, collaboration and purpose (there are more, especially contextual, but these are a good starting point). The OECD defines entrepreneurial activity as “human action in pursuit of the generation of value, through the creation or expansion of economic activity, by identifying and exploiting new products, processes or markets”. The emphasis, to our minds, is on value creation. Under the umbrella of the G20 Summit there’s been a lot of talking, and there’s a sense that purpose and social benefit is more explicitly a talking point in forums and in the community. We, like many others, know that social and environmental issues are economic and business issues. The recommendations for inclusive approaches, addressing climate change and increasing women’s participation in the workforce across the G20 nations are complex propositions. Services and goods accessible to the lowest income earners are required. As researchers and other commentators call for a systems perspective that engages complex problem solving, impact and inclusion are increasingly drawn to the attention of entrepreneurs who recognise and understand that in a living wage environment (that grapples with social inequity) likes ours, value creation and innovation are necessary for dynamic and prosperous communities and regions.

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