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View innovation in terms of its collective impact

Angeli WellerIf you’re an innovator, you might have heard of responsible innovation, the art of balancing dynamic progress with collective impact. If you haven’t, here are some examples.

First, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and pharmaceutical maker GlaxoSmithKline are hard at work on a new Ebola vaccine to combat an epidemic that according to the World Health Organization has killed more than 5,500 Africans, and spread in small numbers to the US and Spain. Until now, there’s been no market-based incentive for drugmakers to develop a vaccine.

A second example comes from TOMS Shoes, which was founded on the idea that when you buy one pair of TOMS shoes in the developed world, they give one away. They’ve donated more than 35 million pairs of shoes across 60 developing countries to date and have inspired new “buy one, give one” campaigns in businesses like Proctor & Gamble and Warby Parker. TOMS was purchased by Bain Capital in 2014 for more than $625 million.

So responsible innovation is the leveraging of new products, services and business models to address social and environmental challenges, in addition to creating financial return. At least, that’s the glass half full side of it. But what about the glass half empty?

In the case of the Ebola vaccine, the rate of development has been radically increased. The CEO of GlaxoSmithKline stated publicly that the company will complete in months the testing that generally takes years. The test will confirm basic effectiveness but won’t give a clear view of long-term immunity or potential side effects. The need to address the humanitarian crisis, in this case, is outweighing the normal health and safety trajectory that new vaccines follow.

And while TOMS has been embraced by western shoppers, its critics note that it puts local shoemakers out of business by flooding markets with free shoes. In other words, it leverages the power of the capital markets in the developed world only to harm the markets in the developing ones that receive its charity. Not only does it fail to bring about economic development in the places that need it most, it relies on the presence of poor people for business growth.

All this shows that business professionals need to understand ethics and responsibility, especially when their work is disruptive or seeks systemic change. Innovation in a product, service or business model should be considered in terms of its collective impact, be it economic, social or environmental.

So what’s a company to do? In 2013, researchers Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten suggested four key aspects to ensuring innovations are managed responsibly.

Anticipation: The process by which you search high and low for the places where problems or unintended consequences could arise. This is clearly on the mind of GlaxoSmithKline, as the CEO asked earlier this year for indemnification from liability should something go amiss with the vaccine as a result of its accelerated development timeline.

Reflexivity: The ongoing examination of assumptions and values. This means looking honestly in the mirror and acknowledging that organizational learning will evolve over time. For TOMS, this has meant a willingness to see the model’s limitations. In response, TOMS extended its manufacturing into Ethiopia and Haiti to create jobs, and it committed to sourcing a third of its production from developing countries by 2015.

Inclusion: The idea of engaging with stakeholders who will feel the impact of the innovation, to ensure their perspectives and expectations are included in the process. In the Ebola example, this could mean engagement sessions with medical care providers, patients and their families.

Responsiveness: Making changes when negative impacts are discovered. For TOMS, this meant evolving the model when the company expanded to include eyeglasses. A purchase of glasses pays for the employment of medical professionals in the developing world who provide essential eye-related medical care and surgeries – an investment in development, not charity.

Responsible innovation means doing no harm. It means having a positive impact. It means leveraging the power of new discoveries and business models to solve social problems like epidemics and poverty. It’s an approach that embraces anticipation of impacts, reflexivity on progress, inclusion of stakeholders, and responsiveness to new information.  It’s a complicated business, but it’s worth it.

Angeli Weller is Director of Boise State University’s Responsible Business Initiative, and an affiliate of the Centre for Creativity and Innovation.



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