Corporate Social Responsibility and the Potential for Societal Innovation

A view from Manchester-Disruptive City

How can we engage the talented ones into the fold of Societal Innovation?Image

Later on this month the Olympic Games comes to London.  Some would argue that  without the financial support of corporate giants such as McDonald’s and Coca Cola the event would not be possible.

The short-term gain of  accepting sponsorship monies from these organisations has a disturbing long-term effect on our western society in terms of the health of our citizens; on one hand we encourage our young people to be healthy and to take up sport and exercise, whilst simultaneously we jump into bed with organisations that flourish by selling goods that are, by any reasonable account, the antithesis of healthy. Incongruence!

I wonder, why are our most talented people attracted to employment within the food industry and to scheme up marketing ploys like food bundling, low fat health foods, and drink responsibly campaigns?

And then the talented ones are lured towards the financial markets where they get to work innovating and creating ideas such as exotic credit derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, and tax avoidance planning.

Yes, and for those who avoid the food and finance industries our good old friends the drug conglomerates are there to sweep up some of the remaining talent to generate such excellent entrepreneurial strategies such as – disease mongering, bribing doctors, and price fixing/market rigging.

And if money, food, drugs and alcohol are not attractive enough for our most talented youth then the defence industry lurks.

Later on this month, thanks to the courage, hard work, sacrifices, and determination of visionaries at Aalto University and The New Club of Paris a group of people will gather in Helsinki, Finland to discuss the challenges of our future society at the Aalto Camp for Societal Innovation (ACSI)

A question to the participants at ACSI might be this: how can our most talented people be encouraged and enabled to focus their efforts on the long-term issues of society as opposed to furthering the strategies of our finance industries, our drug companies, our food and drink lobbies et al?   Because if they can, and I believe that they can,  the future is very bright for all of us.

And that would be corporate social responsibility at the highest level.

Thoughts. comments. observations?

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The Elves and the Shoemaker: Exploring the Spirituality of Work

I felt that this was a blog worth sharing. Enjoy.

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Role of innovation as society faces the ageing population

Lord Robert Winston lead a panel of internationally recognised experts at The Royal Institution on Tuesday 19th November 2013 to explore the role of innovation as society faces the critical challenge of an ageing population.

I believe this is well worth watching- both debates, start here:

In the last 150 years, improved standards of living and advances in medical science have doubled our life expectancy. Today, people in affluent countries expect to live well into their 80’s. In fact, life expectancy is increasing by more than five hours every day.

This is a remarkable achievement and should be a cause for celebration. Yet population ageing is one of the thorniest issues of our time. By 2050, for every person aged 65 years or older, there will be only two people aged 15-64 – and the proportion of very elderly people aged 80+ is set to triple.

Lord Robert Winston and the panel of distinguished panel experts explored

  • How best can we support older people in the UK and Europe?
  • How do we nurture healthy living with the help of technological and scientific innovation?
  • How might we rethink our approach to welfare and healthcare to tackle the major age-associated diseases?
  • How will an ageing society be funded and whose responsibility should it be?
  • How can innovation help society value older people and encourage older people to make an active contribution?
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Heading for Malmo?

Heading to ACSI Camp 2013 in Malmö, Sweden!

This year ACSI Camp 2013 kicks off on the 26th-29th of August and focuses on sustainable urban development.

100 participants will explore new solutions for sustainable urban development in a multi-disciplinary and inspiring teams.

Aalto Camp for Societal Innovation ACSI is a new generation innovation agenda. This global platform for societal innovation brings together innovators, field practitioners, researchers, entrepreneurs and students from all over the world to co-create and test new and promising ideas to address societal challenges.

Challenges have been presented by companies, cities and other stakeholders, take a look at the full list of challenges we will be working to solve here.

>>> Learn More
>>> Read Latest News from ACSI

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The Flickering Light of Social Innovation

Without doubt one of the most exciting areas of innovation, social innovation, that is developing initiatives that are attempting to tackle the real societal issues, has had a very tough time in the last year or so.

The need for social innovation and where it is contributing and aspires to resolve, has not gone away but it does seem to me, some of the energy and passion seems to have drained away in this time. Perhaps, in recent weeks, there are some signs of some emerging initiatives that are beginning to be ‘rekindle’ this social innovation flame but it seems in such incremental ways. Surely what is needed, is making bold leaps at this time not token gestures? We need to mobilize with a real intensity around many of the present social ills we are facing.

Recent losses in the movement for social innovation

Firstly for those involved in the social innovation movement the sad loss of Diogo Vasconcelos, who tragically died last year took away the champion of social innovation. Equally the move of Geoff  Mulgan from being the CEO of the Young Foundation into a broader CEO’s role at Nesta, where they certainly have shifted their recent focus in helping people and organizations bring great innovation ideas to life has altered where the emphasis needs to be placed for innovation in general, less so for social innovation.

This focus has been through providing investments and grants to mobilize research, explored through networks and building the skills necessary as the UK’s innovation foundation.

My feeling is that the focused energy, commitment and passion both of these individuals brought to social innovation has not been replaced as yet. It seems both organizations (Nesta and the Young Foundation) are actively exploring novel ways to support social innovation. Yet in these tough economic circumstances, at the very time these really need accelerating at a pace, it must be very hard to deliver the level and depth of solutions society needs and is crying out for? What we do need is more champions to be visible to keep social innovation shining in the headlights for our leaders to see and support.

I’m certainly not so encouraged that a recent competition announced  greatly accelerates and meets today’s real, pressing social needs in the ways we should be doing. We need a lot more movement and commitment than this, when we are facing over 25 million people out of work across Europe and up to 50% of young people in Spain and Greece unemployed and large parts of Ireland, Italy, Portugal, France, the UK all struggling to hold the level of the young, unemployed below 30%. The constant closure of businesses, the hardships of millions all caught up in the economic distress is causing us to face some of the most  serious economic hardships across most of Europe in our lifetime.

Perhaps we have had a void in this time? Has it got harder or easier in the past 12 months?

As I have sensed the energy has been seemingly lost in social innovation. Its past ‘raw’ passion has been replaced with a very different type of animal. There has been a major event in this time, in that the EU commission has taken social innovation into the heart of its future programmes. It wants to make the fixing of society’s most severe problems as central.

This, they are suggesting, needs to become a people-centred movement, which aims to create a more participatory practice-based process to find sustainable strategies for a socially and sustainable future. This planned adoption, this shift in the emphasis point of being more open and participatory, is actually a really daunting task to achieve.

The EU by taking hold of social innovation, might actually be squeezing out the very forces, the passion, the individuals commitments to social issues at a grass root level and replacing this with “people power” might be more volatile than they think. The shift suggested is perhaps beyond bold but reckless, unless it has a clear model to replace the existing, as these existing models are breaking down under the strains being imposed by austerity cuts. Is this EU adoption a possible distraction, deflecting vital resources and commitment from the issues needing to be resolved in the here and now and attracting the ‘organizing’ resources away at a vital time, those that have actual experience to resolve social issues themselves be distracted away in aligning with the EU on its application of taking on social innovation. Can we afford that in these times? Unless we have emerging a Social Innovation equivalent of a Marshall plan as a Social European Recovery Program, SERP.

A real concern is that Brussels, the centre for EU policies and planning has even less in common with the very real people that are actively engaged in the social solutions needed today. They march to a very different ‘beat’. Social innovation is by its very nature and attempt at tacking complex social problems experimental, cross-cutting, highly collaborative and very dispersed into pockets of local need and application.

It is going to be a struggle to fit social innovators with the Bureaucratic nature of the EU, less than risk-embracing, grappling with the severe economic problems across the EU community. So far the EU or national governments are not finding easy solutions to complex economic issues, can they add even more to their crowded agenda of social innovation. There is just too many questions being asked of the existing success or failures around the EU as an economic and financial block ? Adding social innovation at this time when the EU is defensive and under increasing attack is questionable.

We are facing austere cuts across many European countries, social initiatives are being caught up within all these economic cuts demanded. How can social innovation help solve the very issues when it is equally being starved of money, resources and focus?

There are countless acute needs for solutions

There is a growing need across the EU for support, both in material ways (creation of jobs) and psychological needs (to manage in these austere times). Is social innovation rising to these twin challenges to help resolve these urgent needs of today?

Deep within this ‘catch all’ of social innovation we need to prepare many for the most difficult transitions they are facing within their lives:  in loss of jobs, in their self-esteem, in their future and in their rights of choice, as these are being taken away from them in so many different ways. The destiny of many is being pre-determined by so many events out of their control and when people feel powerless, they ‘react’. Perhaps a very different type of “people power” than those in power would desire.

The ability to build ‘resilience’ is currently heavily shackled by a lack of money entering the system; the debt burden at individual, state and EU level is restricting options. Hard choices are casting more out of the participants of wealth creation, into being dependants upon others. Many are spiralling down.

In a world of networks and instant connections we are witnessing a growing sense of isolation, physical isolation. There are fewer people to turn too and ask for advice, for help, for recognizing their needs for support, because these people are becoming more hidden from plain view. They are increasingly on the margins, caused by policy revision, austerity cuts and become increasingly small in scale as they can’t find the voice of the past, that would stand up for them.

Social innovation is complex and challenging but it needs to deliver solutions today.

There are many ways to sketch an increasingly complex picture of social ills. There is a vicious spiral, turning to greater tensions and increased pressure points. There are moments of transition and social innovation needs to respond and respond quickly to these pressures.

We are facing growing health issues, ageing challenges, youth disenfranchisement, and communities breaking down, a growing sense of injustice, and lowering of well-being.

The social innovation light needs turning on brightly, it can’t simply flicker like it is now. There is no future if we can’t find pathways and real solutions to the problems we are facing today. Society needs to engage before it is “too little too late” and I fear we are far too close to the social equivalent of the doomsday clock of midnight.

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When you’re going through hell, just keep going

I originally posted this article on my postgraduate careers blog and it generated some interest so I thought it would be of interest to readers of Societal Innovation too.

I love this quote attributed to Winston Churchill – it sums up that sometimes when you are facing tough times, there’s going to be no rescue squad on hand and you’ve just got to stick with it and keep on going. I’ve written about resilience before and in this post I’m returning to that theme.

Recently, I have met a number of people who have hit career lows. There have been lots of reasons for this, but largely it’s come down to the political/economic environment we are in and the subsequent re-structuring in organisations and squeeze of individuals therein. We can all experience career lows; e.g., any PhD researcher reading this will probably very easily be able to tell you about low/s within their research or similarly a student who realises they are on a course they hate; the same can be the case if you’re in the wrong job, facing redundancy or in an unhappy work environment.

So career lows are normal but it’s how we respond to them that’s important.

I recently read Peter Hawkins new book “No Regrets on Sunday”. I have seen Peter speak on numerous occasions and am familiar with the excellent Windmills programme which he jointly devised, so thought his latest book would be worth a read.

Peter Hawkins talks about lifting off from your lows and using them as a way to re-evaluate what you want. It sounds cheesy but he also argues that we do need lows as the provide contrast and help us appreciate our highs. That’s positive thinking for you.

So what can you do when you’ve hit a low? Hitting a low can provide an opportunity to really do some soul-searching about where you want to go next. Much of this is about asking yourself questions and allowing yourself time to give fully considered replies.

Below, I have borrowed Peter’s 7-day plan ideas and put my own twist on it.  The 7 point plan goes beyond just work but looks at how you position your work and career within your life as a whole

1.  What’s your mindset?

Be honest with yourself. Remember in many situations, the only difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude. Think about any limiting beliefs you have, are you always saying something like… “If only”, “I can’t”, “It’s not fair”. If you recognise you do have a negative mindset, try to start re-framing events/experiences in a different way. For example “I’m devastated that I didn’t get the job I applied for” could become “I have to trust that I didn’t get that job because it wouldn’t have been the right job for me, but I have learnt a lot from the experience of going to interview”

2. Analyse how you use your time.

The Windmills programme describes the 4 parts of your life: Working, Learning, Playing, Giving (WLPG).  Take time to reflect on how your time divides up now and what your ideal division of time would be. You can do this using circles. Think of the size of each of your circles and whether they overlap etc. If your Working circle dwarfs all other circles, is this something you are happy with?

3. What roles do you play in life?

You may be a student, a researcher, a parent, a son or daughter, a volunteer, a partner, a colleague, a neighbour, an employee, an employer etc.  How much time and energy does each role take? Rank their importance; and reflect on whether the importance of a role is reflected in the amount of time/ energy you give to it. If roles that are very important to you are getting very little of your time or energy, what can you do about this?

4. Do you really know what you are good at?

Have you done a thorough analysis of your skills and talents and are you currently able to utilise these? Are you stuck in a rut doing something that isn’t fully optimising your prime skills?  If you’re not sure what your prime skills are, do a skills audit (the No Regrets book includes one), and consider ways to fully optimise your skills, e.g. if you’re an engineer but you know you have skills in developing others, why not volunteer to coach a youth sports team. It makes sense to play to your strengths.

5. Is your life fulfilled or just full?

How happy are you? How happy were you before you hit this low? Does your work and life fulfil you? What really gets you excited and passionate and are you able to make use of this passion in your life or have you done at any point in the past? Think about your purpose in life and whether you have been side-tracked along the way. What do you do that really gives you a buzz and you can really lose yourself? When was the last time you were so absorbed in something so that you didn’t look at the time for at least an hour. You can safely assume that when you are absorbed by something you’re doing it’s because you’re bringing together a combination of your innate skills, interests and even purpose.

6. Create your goals

Take time to step back from the conveyor-belt of life; create your goals by imagining a date in the future and thinking about what you’d like to be doing. On this date in the future (it could be 6 months, 2 years, or 10 years); how would you like to describe to a questioner, what you may have done over that period of time. Start to take small steps to reach those goals. Hawkins talks about creating your own Golden ticket (thanks Charlie Bucket from Roald Dahl). He suggests writing it on a postcard and sending it to yourself – the postcard should outline your long-term vision but also create a quick-win. A quick-win should be something you could do in the  48 hours; writing/updating your CV could be a good example of this, or creating a Linked In profile to act as a vehicle to keep in touch with your extended network.

7. Appreciate and nurture your supporters’ club

Hawkins uses the “benchmetaphor to capture the idea of who is in your all-important supporters’ club. Sometimes having a career low can really help you evaluate who really is on your “bench”. Who would be there with a stretcher to take you off if you were injured and give you a morale-boosting talk after a defeat? Think about who is on your bench and be ready to appreciate them; do something to thank them.  Sometimes one of the best things about having a low is that the people that matter will often help you. Very often it may be people you have helped in the past.  It’s really useful to know who your supporters are as it is within that group of people that you’ll grow. So sometimes a low can make it clear in terms of relationships where you can flourish or in contrast what relationships are not fertile ground for you and will strangle you with weeds or starve you of a good soil for growth.  Move away from the latter soil and plant yourself firmly in the former.

Thanks to Peter Hawkins and Windmills, as well as all the people who have shared their career lows with me – for inspiring this post.

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Root poem


We are the threads that weave

We are the busy bees

We are the fabric and the seams

The reason why we achieve


We are the warp and weft

We earn our daily bread

And we work and we work

Cos hard work brings success


We’re born out of industry

Cotton sewn through history

We’re revolutionary

We work while others sleep


We’re in the bricks and mortar

We’re the mothers fathers sons and daughters

The very DNA

Of what make this city great


We are the wool the wind the twine

We’re crafted tailored and designed

We’re the sign of the cross

We are temples, synagogues and mosques


We interlock and bisect

We criss cross and interject

We are the textile of time

The fundamentals of life


We are the battlers and fighters

We invented all nighters

We’re in the pulse the heartbeat…

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Lessons Finland can learn from Nokia

In this week’s Helsinki Times David J Cord draws comparisons between Nokia and its parent country Finland.

David writes…

‘FINLAND benefited greatly during Nokia’s time of success. We gained tax income, jobs, know-how, and a great international reputation. Yet we can also learn from the company’s decline. It’s problems, and how to fix them, could be viewed as a microcosm for the country as a whole.

WE KNOW that Nokia did not neglect the future during their period of success. The mobile phone firm invested heavily in its future: in the early 2000s, for example, Nokia spent more in research and development than Google and Apple combined.

A COUPLE of years ago, Nokia used to brag how much more it spent on R&D than its rivals. This sounds eerily familiar to the way Finland likes to boast about its education system. Every time some obscure think tank no one has ever heard of ranks us at the top in global education it makes front page news across the country. Investing in the future is one thing, but applying those investments productively is another.

IN MAY a survey found that 7% of manufacturers, 15% of service providers and 39% of construction firms were experiencing a labour shortage. That same month youth unemployment was at 31%. Something is dreadfully wrong if our vaunted education system is churning out graduates that employers don’t want or can’t hire. Our investments in the future are not working, just like what happened with Nokia. Are we not giving our youth the needed skills? Or is our labour system too mired in bureaucracy and collective bargaining agreements to work effectively? Probably a bit of both.

ANOTHER thing we can learn from Nokia is to fix the problem as soon as it is identified. Early in 2009 I went to Nokia’s Capital Markets Day. By this time it had become apparent they were in trouble. Then-CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo told the room of assembled investors how everything was just fine, and the investors duly sent the message back to their offices on their Blackberries. It was very disturbing to watch, and I luckily declined to buy any Nokia shares.’

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Stafford Beer

At the beginning of Stafford Beer’s book “Brain Of The Firm” he explains communication in a very simple yet most effective way. I felt that his message was worth sharing.

“In communication everything depends on what you end up with, not on what was actually said or written down … when everything is understood the details cease to matter very much, or can be changed, or can even be abandoned for another set”

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