Amidst the re-assessments taking place as a result of COVID-19, there is an invaluable opportunity for businesses to rethink the purpose and nature of innovation.
The global pandemic has shaken economies to their core and questioned the social status quo. Combined with continuing political turmoil and the climate crisis, conditions are prime for a fundamental reset of innovation in business; providing the opportunity for the values of innovation to become more widespread and socially embedded.
It is time for a broader franchise to have a say in how innovation creates the future. The question is, what role will business play in this reset?
Image: Getty Images / Malte Mueller
Image: Getty Images / Malte Mueller
A new direction
Past narratives about innovation’s importance for profitability, productivity and competitiveness have to be extended in a post-COVID world. Businesses need to emphasize innovation’s value in improving quality of life and creating meaningful work, reducing social inequalities and cultivating environmental sustainability.
The language on the measures and outcomes of innovation – R&D expenditures, patent numbers, start-up companies launched – has little meaning for most people. The language of innovation is that of elites in businesses and universities and is divorced from the reality of everyday concerns.
A popular definition of innovation is the successful application of new ideas that add value: this has to ensure that it is successful and value-adding for society.
Rather than being recognised as a positive, innovation is commonly associated with job losses, insecurity and increased workloads. The language of change, flexibility, agility, and adaptability needs to move beyond its application to business efficiency, and instead be the expression of the social and progressive purpose of business.
The positive change innovation can bring should become a focal point for collaboration: connecting the enthusiasm of youth and experience of the old, private incentives and the public good, immediate demands and long-term needs.
Innovation has failed to connect with the majority of the population because they are disconnected from its purpose and implementation.
For example, technology is something that happens to us, rather than with us. We might enjoy the benefits of online shopping, ride-sharing and social media, but suffer the consequences of poor employment practices in the gig economy and loss of digital privacy.
The need is to enjoy the former without the consequences of the latter. For this to happen, businesses need to help give people more of a voice.
Image: Getty Images / Luis Alvarez
Businesses need to be more transparent to their stakeholders. Information is needed on the working conditions of those making, delivering and warehousing goods, and the environmental cost of their manufacture and transportation.
There needs to be an explosion in the crowdsourcing and crowdfunding of innovations and testing and prototyping new ideas in thousands of hackathons, accelerators and incubators.
We have to see greater diversity in design teams. New educational and training programs are needed, from those that encourage more girls and minorities into careers in technology and innovation, to those that stimulate social and environmental causes.
Greater diversity in voices have to be heard not only on what innovations are needed and welcome, but on how they are to be created. Innovation thrives in workplaces associated with inclusion, playfulness, happiness, and fulfilment.
Business and the great reset
There were moves afoot prior to COVID-19 to rethink the purpose of business and the value it seeks to create, amidst growing evidence that addressing societal issues and stakeholders’ priorities helps produce long-term value. A new approach to innovation has to be part of this reformation.
Some companies, such as Unilever, have made significant progress in turning rhetorical allegiance to these objectives into reality. Corporate philanthropy in companies such as Atlassian is taking new forms by encouraging employees to dedicate work time to social causes. R&D agendas, including in pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, are beginning to change, balancing profit with need.
These initiatives are driven by mixtures of business realities, altruism, pressure from employees, and increased social expectations. While laudable, they are not at a scale necessary to deal with future challenges.
A more comprehensive response is promised by the World Economic Forum’s ‘Great Reset’. Global institutions, such as the UN, IMF, and International Trade Union Confederation, and major corporations, such as Mastercard and BP, have pledged support for a fundamental reset of the foundations of the economic and social system for a more equitable, sustainable and resilient future.
The Great Reset provides a framework for action and rethink of business purpose and behaviour. It is up to businesses to join and contribute to this movement, and to ensure the innovations they pursue contribute to it.
Images: Getty Images / d3sign
There is no future in doing business in the same way as before the pandemic. There is a different future, potentially a better future for everyone, and businesses have to ensure that their innovations and the ways they innovate, see and grasp the opportunity it presents.
Mark Dodgson AO is Professor of Innovation Studies at the University of Queensland Business School. He writes a regular blog on innovation for the World Economic Forum.