Challenges are scaling faster than ever because of how interconnected our society is and our inability to combine efforts. Covid-19 illustrates this fact: in mere months, the coronavirus escalated to a pandemic with devastating consequences for everyone. No matter how large a business is, it cannot tackle such complex and fast-changing challenges. Therefore, we need to work with others and connect ecosystems. We are seeing fast-growing professional networks that are critical to enabling this mission and ignite innovation. Their members are typically aligned by values and the desire to have social impact. Analysing these on going trends allows us to understand how collaboration can ignite impactful innovation and bring the practice forward together with business partners and the youth.
Shaping Horizons is a social enterprise born at the University of Cambridge that focuses on promoting collaboration to drive innovation forward. Our operations are based on what we termed social innovation diplomacy which may sound distant from current business operations but, in fact, it is not at all.
Most successful and scalable solutions are collaborative puzzles built by teams or organisations that are spread globally. Corporates no longer want their employees to be assembly-line robots: technology can easily cope with such routine work. Instead, teams should synergise to exchange ideas and build better products and services. This work culture should undoubtedly happen in a digital environment because Covid-19 is accelerating digitalisation and remote working to unprecedented levels – it is the key formula to retain business competitiveness.
Moreover, complex challenges mean that collaboration with external stakeholders is a must. This lays the foundation for one important trend on innovation today which is the focus on open strategies. This entails that we choose to share ideas or solutions so that organisations can support and develop them with us. This can lead to several benefits such as, for instance, using fewer resources and speeding up the innovation process. This is an inherent feature of innovation diplomacy and an ongoing business culture transformation that boosts our capacity to work together.
At Shaping Horizons, we are part of this cultural transformation. Our one-year innovation programme is designed to support the creation of open projects. Specifically, the programme allows young community members and corporate employees to form a network and work together with state-of-the-art digital practices. Our young participants gain the know-how needed to create a social venture, while their corporate mentors have a unique professional development opportunity. Importantly, they both engage in the creation of social impact which brings meaning to them. With over 500 people involved and 130,000 messages shared across more than 30 countries to date, it is mind-blowing to witness how nurturing digital collaboration can flourish into fresh perspectives and new products. It is also surprising how seamlessly our method thrives amongst participants, ultimately transforming work culture.
Thanks to open innovation, collaboration has been made simple. Today´s innovation landscape goes beyond though and features ever-growing networks. Most of these networks are small, local, open and connected (SLOC networks). Such is the case of Ashoka, Global Changemakers, Global Shapers, International Youth Society, One Young World, Restless Developments, Sandbox, Social Innovation Exchange and We. In his research, Ezio Manzini provided foundational insight into some of the reasons that make these networks effective in driving innovation. He indicated that a key aspect is that they arise from talented, self-driven individuals with a shared vision for change. The members belong to their communities so they understand them but they are connected beyond them through digital tools. Moreover, they are also highly motivated and eager to join forces with like-minded organisations, in other words, to collaborate for driving impact. Indeed, we are seeing a great number of exciting innovations arising today from such networks, many of which are open.
SLOC networks are thriving not just because they promote innovation and collaborative impact, but also because they give a sense of meaning and belonging to their members. When teaching about innovation, we hammer home that solutions should be user-centred. One could also argue that they are increasingly meaning-centred. They certainly have user needs at their core but, more often than not, are created by people who truly care about how such solutions will drive change. Hence, it is important that these solutions give meaning not just to the end-user, but also, holistically, to the corporate employees working on them. There is no other way for corporates to obtain and retain talent than by providing – not showing, not saying – work that gives meaning to their employees.
Shaping Horizons draws inspiration from Manzini’s and our research for building a SLOC network with an ethos geared towards value creation and a shared vision for impact through collaboration. Each innovation programme enlarges our network and helps our corporate partners access a rich pool of young talent within their area of expertise. By building our work in a SLOC network, we can help corporate employees find meaning and therefore increase their talent retention. We do this by training business employees and providing them with hands-on practice mentoring one of the early-stage social projects incubated in one of our programmes. Thus, employees are equally part of a solution that could become a new product with social impact. We have observed that such a strategy ignites a true entrepreneurial mindset and provides a sense of purpose to business employees.
Though often unrecognised, social innovation diplomacy is thriving worldwide. It is truly driving forward innovation and collective impact. Businesses that successfully grasp this trend will boost their innovation strategy and competitiveness to the next level. At Shaping Horizons, we are committed to breaking new ground and collaborating with corporates to support them on this exciting endeavour. It just takes leadership to jump into this ongoing cultural transformation in the innovation space.
Matias Acosta, Contributor at the Møller Institute.
Matias is the CEO and Founder of Shaping Horizons and Head of Exploration of the UNDP Accelerator Lab, based in Argentina.