Jonathan Morris, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR
The past 20 years have given rise to technologies that were simply unimaginable before their invention: the internet, high-speed wireless data, global satellite telephone networks, flexible energy grids, solar panels and wind turbines, the mass-market electric vehicle. … The list goes on. And these technologies have arguably brought with them social impact, such as an increased access to information. But have they brought with them social progress? Jean-Luc Beylat, President of Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs France, would say, "Undeniably, yes."
Beylat recently spoke at our "Grand Débat" event in Paris, offering a vision of a world in which social progress is driven by technological innovation—and not just any kind of innovation, but open innovation. The word open is important as it refers to a change in the long-standing institution of business innovation. Whereas research and development (R&D) used to be a closed, locked-down department, today, companies and organizations have opened R&D to external stakeholders including, sometimes, competitors. And they argue that this open approach will result in world-shaking social changes.
Beylat offered the example of “dumb cities.” Today, our cities are managed by a number of siloed systems—some control traffic lights, others regulate the flow of heat, a number support our data infrastructure, and others deal with energy regulation. These systems process tons of information, but they don’t store, use, or share that information in intelligent ways. So the city, on the whole, remains “dumb.”
Imagine if these systems were interlinked, working with each other to intelligently improve the city’s overall efficiency. This could reduce energy use, lessen environmental impact, and improve the average city-goer’s quality of life in a number of ways—a smog-reduced, traffic-free city? Yes, please. Imagine further who might be able to oversee linking all these systems together. In Bell Labs France’s opinion, this cannot be one actor alone but rather a collective oversight in an open initiative among business, government, civil society, and regular consumers.
Inevitably, this promise of social progress through technological innovation raises certain questions:
- How do you successfully openly innovate? What is the criteria for success? And how do you measure progress? Success is a difficult thing to precognize—just think of the airplane. When history’s brightest minds set out to take to the skies over 100 years ago, they never imagined that the airplane would fundamentally change the world for both commerce and leisure a century later—but this is perhaps the airplane’s greatest contribution to social progress. How could they have known to define this as a criterion? They couldn’t. And this was a closed innovation: The challenge is multiplied with open innovation.
- How do you capture the value of innovation among multiple actors? And what about trade-offs? Beylat gave the example of cell phone towers, a material business for Bell Labs France. The company has the power to control tower signal, and by minimizing it, they save energy and thus lessen the burden on the environment. However, this also lessens the reach of the tower, reducing access to information, a social benefit. Is this a trade-off worth making?
- Perhaps most important (and difficult) to answer, how do you create the business case? Let’s not forget that one of the three pillars of sustainability is finance. Open innovation projects do not easily fit in quarterly earnings statements—they are long-term investments with generally intangible benefits in the eye of the investor. How do you convince a board of directors when the value is not easily represented in figures?
Though we can’t fully answer these questions here, we continue to think and work on the subject. We recently made "A Call for Collaboration in BSR Initiatives" to announce our “Co-Lab” initiative, which brings business, government, civil society, and consumers together on key topics to openly innovate towards systemic rather than incremental change. This multistakeholder collaboration is key to exiting today’s closed-door models. But to get there we must be clear on what successful open innovation means. We at BSR cannot define this alone, and we invite you to post your thoughts and reactions so that we can innovate together.