Having just returned to our offices after a great week at the BSR Conference 2009 in San Francisco, I am both sobered by the daunting challenges we face as a global community and inspired by the unprecedented opportunities we have to meet—and beat—them. With our powerful network of organizations and individuals committed to making a difference, I believe we can do this.

As BSR President and CEO Aron Cramer noted in his opening remarks, the mere fact that 1,000 of you, from nearly 40 countries, came to learn, discuss, and debate the best path forward shows that corporate social responsibility (CSR) is alive and well in the midst of the worst recession we have seen in decades.

Whereas a year ago at the BSR Conference, we focused on whether and how CSR would retain its relevance in a challenging economic environment, the dominant themes of our time together last week revolved around how we could best deploy our resources and creativity to capture the vast opportunities presented by this new “reset world.” This shift from a focus on challenges and risks to a focus on innovation and opportunity was the big story of this year’s Conference.

During his address, Cramer also laid out BSR’s road map for achieving success in this new world:

  1. Promote innovation for sustainability.
  2. Embrace systems redesign.
  3. Maximize the power of networks.

This framework nicely summarizes the outputs of the diverse plenary sessions, breakouts, workshops, and hallway conversations that unfolded over the next three days of the BSR Conference in San Francisco.

Promote Innovation for Sustainability

Whether in the service of more sustainable products and services, business models, or entire industries, innovation was a major theme in most of our plenary and working sessions. So what are the key attributes of this innovation for sustainability?

  • According to Alcatel-Lucent CEO Ben Verwaayen: “Innovation is not just technology. It is doing things better, and doing things on a bigger scale.”
  • Erik Joule of Levi Strauss & Co. emphasized that innovation is just as often about making small changes and focusing on small wins as it is a single grand redesign.
  • In his session on ecoliteracy and ecodesign, Fritjof Capra called on us to evolve from a focus on objects to a focus on relationships. Using the example of cars, he pointed out that the value is not in the car as a product, but in the car as a mobility service.
  • BROAD Air Conditioning CEO Zhang Yue echoed this theme when he characterized his company’s mission not as selling air-conditioners but as “allowing our customers to be more energy efficient.”
  • In the plenary panel on integrating sustainability into innovation, Nike Sustainable Business and Innovation Vice President Hannah Jones emphasized that sustainability-based innovation needs to be “out there, open-sourced, and shared.” In that same session, John Kao pointed out that no one player or sector possesses all the answers. He called for a new form of collaboration among public and private organizations, NGOs, and civil society.
  • Public-private partnerships were also the subjects of Elizabeth Frawley Bagley’s plenary address as well as our two-hour working session on government partnerships, where Howcast Media Cofounder Sanjay Raman noted, “Once you start working with someone in government, it connects you to a lot more people, and that opens lots of doors.”

Embrace Systems Redesign

Cramer set up last week’s discussion of systems redesign in his opening remarks with a description of “the mother of all systems problems”—global climate change. He noted that while all eyes are on government in the run-up to Copenhagen, business can shape what governments do, in part by demonstrating leadership that will help catalyze and strengthen policy discussions. Systems redesign as a concept came up repeatedly during the week, covering a broad array of issues at the global, industry, and/or individual enterprise levels:

  • Broad Air Conditioning’s Zhang called for a fundamental re-think of the current focus on growth and development, noting that it is “not the biggest that will survive, but the best. … More is not necessarily better.”
  • In our session on the changing role of the CSR team in a reset world, Richard Gillies of Marks & Spencer focused on the need to redefine the link between CSR and corporate strategy, moving senior management from awareness to visible leadership: Sustainability needs to be “CEO led, not CEO sponsored, or endorsed, or sanctioned.”
  • Aramex International CEO Fadi Gandhour noted that in place of traditional philanthropic approaches, his company is committed to “incubating the local community” to create and maintain the necessary conditions for sustainable business success in the future.
  • In a pre-Conference training on water-related risks, participant Robert Israel of JohnsonDiversey reminded us to stop our “silo-ed” thinking and keep the big picture in mind, even within our sustainability initiatives: “Part of the problem we all have when we’re talking about water footprinting, is that we need to go beyond that and look at the relationship between water, energy, waste, and toxics. We really need a total footprint.”
  • Alcatel-Lucent’s Verwaayen highlighted the fact that diverse global perspectives will be a critical input to developing true sustainability solutions. He noted that the recent shift in emphasis from the G8 to the G-20 is a positive development, marking the real end of our post-World War II institutional arrangements.

Maximize the Power of Networks

BSR has long promoted the idea that networks hold the key to progress, and the Conference was a living, breathing example of this, highlighting the work of our multiple industry working groups, value chain partnerships, and multi-stakeholder efforts. Other specific comments included the following:

  • Microsoft’s Pamela Passman noted that, historically, information technologies have embraced what session moderator Zachary Karabell called “coopetition“—cooperation among companies that are also competitors on a host of issues such as environmental sustainability, privacy, safety, and education.
  • This idea was also referenced in our session on sustainability solutions, where IBM's Edan Dionne pointed out that the technology industry is a network: “By necessity, we have to collaborate.”
  • Stakeholder engagement is a powerful network approach that has evolved to address a wide variety of needs, from market development and innovation to conflict resolution. As Gap Inc.’s Dan Henkle noted in our session on corporate stakeholder engagement: “These issues are so complex, there’s no single approach. You have to find the right experts and harness the power of many into the power of one.”

I hope you left the Conference feeling as engaged and exhilarated as I did. The themes of innovation, systems redesign, and leveraging networks, which were so richly reinforced all week, will continue to guide BSR’s work—with you and for you—this year and beyond.

We obviously can’t do it without your input and active participation. We sent all participants a brief email survey on Friday asking for your suggestions on how to improve the quality of the Conference experience. We take your views and preferences very seriously, so please respond to this survey. With your feedback, we look forward to planning an even stronger BSR Conference 2010, to be held November 2 to 5, in New York.