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Business Impact Challenge: Q&A with the Fowler Center

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Our Business Impact Challenge Inspiration phase is gaining steam, as community members from around the world add their stories and insights. To round out our learning during this exploratory phase, we caught up with David Cooperrider, Faculty Director at the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value.
For folks who might not know, what is the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value and what are you working on there?
First of all, let me say how thrilling it is to be engaged in this OpenIDEO process. I love the inspired people, the open sharing, and the sense that we are co-designers of something that can be truly world changing.
At the Fowler Center for Sustainable Value, we believe a macro shift is at work that will, if we help nurture it, decide the shape of things tomorrow. It's a macro shift that asserts that we can be the first generation in human history to eradicate extreme poverty; it's a macro shift declaring that early decades of the 21st century will be the decisive ones for galvanizing the transition to a bright green economy; and it's a macro shift that says that the sustainability revolution was an important start, but that the North Star is something more: “sustainability+ flourishing.”
The purpose of the Fowler Center is to tap three inspiring areas of focus – sustainable value, design-inspired innovation and whole system appreciative intelligence – to accelerate our movement to a sustainability + flourishing world.
As we know, it’s an interesting time and debates on the role of business in society are heated. Rather than being skeptical, we choose to be optimistic: what does it look like when business emerges as an agent of world benefit? Business is one of the most powerful forces on the planet – especially when it works in partnership or collaboration with civil society, universities and think tanks and the public sector. What does it look like when innovations for business and society become a force for a sustainable earth and widespread human, economic and community flourishing?
When Alfred Nobel wrote his last will and testament he set out to pioneer a set of new awards in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and, of course the prize for peace. Incredibly, even though his idea represented an amazing and far-reaching vision at that time, Nobel wrote only one single sentence to describe the entire thing. The award, in his words, would be “a prize to those, who during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”
Alfred Nobel’s words have become an inspiration to me and to the team at the Fowler Center, especially as we work toward creating a business and society award to celebrate and magnify those innovations, which during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind and the world.
Our challenge focus is identifying and celebrating business innovations that are changing the world. Can you explain this a bit and share some examples?
When I think about identifying the business innovations that have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind, two ideas emerge for me:
The first is that it does not privilege large organisations or small. The innovation that comes from a pair of hackers in Silicon Valley or a group of solar entrepreneurs from a village in east Africa can turn into world changing innovation as powerfully as anything emerging from the world’s largest corporation. It’s not about organisational size, it’s about impact.
The second is that we’re not talking about a whole organisation – there are no perfect organisations. It’s about those near perfect innovations, which demonstrate and hold unparalleled promise for the greatest benefit to humankind and the world.
One of my favorite examples of this kind of innovation comes from a Dutch company, OAT, and their “shoes that bloom.” Not only are their shoes remarkably beautiful and sustainably produced, but also demonstrate what a flourishing economy might look like. Can you imagine something even beyond a zero waste economy? Instead of going to a landfill, when these shoes are worn out they leave behind a forest. And they bloom, literally, into a tree that regenerates.
Another example comes from a very inspiring man named Stef Wertheimer in Tefen, Israel. I’ve written in our Inspiration phase about his efforts to support entrepreneurs and use business as a force for peace, which you can read here.
What excites you most about this OpenIDEO challenge?
IDEO is one of the most important design firms in the world and I loved it when I heard Tim Brown declare, “Design thinking is too important to leave to designers.” So I guess Tim was talking about all of us. It reminded me of the words:
If not us, then who?
If not now, then when?
Dee Hock, the founder of VISA, said that there is nothing more powerful than a community working on a task of historic proportion: “a powerful purpose is something,” said Dee, “where we would say at the end of our lives that my life had meaning because I was part of that transformational collaboration.”
How might we inspire and enable business to act as agents of world benefit, and accelerate our epic transition to a world of mutual flourishing – where businesses can excel, people can thrive and nature can flourish?
We’re excited and eager to work with the entire OpenIDEO community on this, our own task of historic proportion.
Cheers, David, for your thoughts and inspiration. Are you eager to dive in to our collaborative efforts? Read our challenge Brief and join the Inspiration phase.
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