The Future of Sustainable Business: Finding Your Power in Networks

November 13, 2013

Jane Church, MALD Candidate, The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy

Jane Church, MALD Candidate, The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy

As the world becomes increasingly connected, the ever-expanding networks that connect us are shaping our future. These networks are also changing the landscape for business, and successful companies are tapping into the power of those networks, finding new opportunities to connect with existing customers and stakeholders and to reach new ones. Companies like Airbnb, Lyft, and Kickstarter are using technology and community networks to create new business models and unlock value.

Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of Institute for the Future, kicked off the BSR Conference 2013 by giving a name to this sea change: socialstructing. As networks become a more powerful force in our economy, socialstructing is how organizations and individuals are "creating value by aggregating micro-contributions by large networks using social tools and technologies." In other words, harnessing small actions for a larger impact.

How are business models changing in response? How can businesses design their work, products, and services for socialstructing? Yerdle and Sungevity, both speakers at the BSR Conference 2013, are two companies that have created network-based business models tapping into the potential of micro-contributions. 

Yerdle Cofounders Andy Ruben and Adam Werbach are creating value by unlocking the underutilized assets—more simply called stuff—that people have sitting in their homes, garages, and storage units. Yerdle is the next generation of business operating within the sharing economy. Users in Yerdle's community go beyond just sharing one asset, like a car, to sharing almost anything you could find in a home. Users post items they no longer want or need and those items are passed on to other Yerdle users in the community, bypassing conventional retail operations and tapping into a network of like-minded people to find what they need.

Tara Norton and Yertle founders

Ruben noted that the power of Yerdle and the sharing economy is that "networks are enabling assets to be brought to bear at the right point in time." Yerdle not only creates new value through its user networks, it reinforces the human connections between individual users within its networks and within communities, a piece that can be missing in our increasingly online world.

We also heard from Sungevity Cofounder and Executive Vice President Danny Kennedy about how the company is using the power of human networks for financial success. Kennedy called renewable energy the greatest economic opportunity of our time but noted that reaching scale will require significant business model ingenuity.

Danny Kennedy at the BSR Conference 2013

Sungevity is maximizing networks of individuals and partner organizations to scale up. From using Google Earth to inform the design of a solar-panel installation on a residential roof to acquiring new customers through online word of mouth, Sungevity relies upon information networks made possible through a socialstructed economy. For example, Sungevity has established partnerships with organizations like the Sierra Club to find new customers among its members, who are more likely to be supportive of renewable energy. This creates a mutually beneficial situation, where Sungevity gains more customers, the Sierra Club supports renewable energy, and customers can live out their ideals. 

Yerdle and Sungevity are leaders in using networks to look to the future, and other companies should take note. For businesses to be successful in the future, they must learn to work within this new ecosystem of collaborative networks. Companies should look for opportunities to work with their employees, customers, and stakeholders to leverage the power of individuals and their networks for both sustainability and business value.

To see more highlights from the BSR Conference 2013, read "Sustainability Storytelling: Creating a Narrative that Matters" and "BSR Conference 2013: Viewing Sustainability Challenges through a Human Lens."

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