What is social responsibility? What is creating positive impact? Why should companies do it? And what is the role of innovation in all this? These were some of the questions that Anne-Laure Fayard, Full Professor at Nova SBE, and Jwana Godinho, founder of Access Lab & It's About Impact, tried to answer in a debate moderated by Paula Oliveira, founder of now-on consulting and Board Member at Lisbon Project, on January 22nd.

"Sometimes social impact happens because you are doing something well and consistently", said Paula Oliveira, in a retrospective of the Close Encounters - From Puropose to Impact debate, promoted by Nova SBE Innovation Ecosystem.

One of the conclusions it underlines is that "innovation for innovation's sake", as Anne-Laure Fayard discussed, is a worrying trend, since it causes a "buzz of always doing something new," but that newness may not necessarily be useful for a paradigm shift, especially when we talk about social sector organizations. "Because sometimes a social transformation can take decades. And it can even be harmful if planning is neglected:

"Before thinking about innovation and solution, we need to make a holistic and systemic analysis of the situation, so that we can design an innovative response, but one that does not have negative consequences in other areas. As an example we have the lithium exploration in the country. Although there is a greater need for batteries for electric products, the mining activity has harmful consequences for the environment and for the people who live around the exploitation. The issue is complex, but we can begin to explore the problem in the following way: what is the problem we are trying to solve? Do we need more cars or better public transportation? If we produce more cars, what is the best way to do it? Do we want battery-powered electric cars or do we invest more in hydrogen? What is the social and environmental impact of this?"

The debate moderator also stressed that one must be careful when talking about positive impact, because "it can be different for each person". There are three questions that must be answered to assess whether an innovation or a business has the potential to make an impact:

1. What are the needs of the world?

2. What is the purpose of the organization and what are the actual capabilities to implement the change?

3. How can this innovation help to solve the problem?

On this last point, Paula Oliveira also added that we should understand who is working in the same area, because the solution may be to collaborate with other initiatives and organizations. Too many people trying to do the same thing without a clear purpose can even leave both the consumer and the shareholders confused. Therefore, when it comes to innovation, it is important to "show value to all stakeholders", including, also, shareholders and funders, as Jwana Godinho discussed. This is because financial return on an investment is still often prioritized, which must be justified in order for some projects to move forward. This can be a real challenge to social innovation, especially for organizations that depend on grants and donations, because it is not always easy to demonstrate impact.

However, it is necessary to be somewhat careful with this necessity, because one can easily fall into one of two traps: overclaiming and underclaiming. The first is the famous "greenwashing", which occurs "when you influence the consumer, customer or society to think you are behaving in a certain way, but in reality you are not exactly there", said Paula Oliveira. The underclaiming can be equally harmful, because "there are several companies that are doing wonderful jobs, but as they realize that there is more to do, they end up saying nothing, losing the possibility to influence their industry".

To face all these challenges, the moderator reminds us that education plays a central role in guiding these issues. "No one knows everything. The problems are extremely complex and the more debates of this kind the better. Academia has an important role in developing a sustainable system.


The next edition of the Nova SBE Innovation Ecosystem Close Encounters will take place on February 14, focusing on the theme "Team Management: Maximizing Productivity and Well-Being in the Workplace". The event will feature Maur├şcio Bueno, Bud's confounder.

Learn more about the event
and register here
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