In the media

Learning to innovate for society

By Ernst Brand

Management Impact

03 February 2021

Innovation that catches on widely requires creativity, persistence and a good idea of what you want to achieve with it. Sometimes successful innovation arises by chance. The Frisbee started as a cake pan. Post-It notes grew out of a failed superglue experiment. But meeting major societal challenges often requires more than luck.

Climate change, an aging population, the energy transition, social inequality, pandemics - these are all wildly complex problems that concern a lot of people and can have a profound impact on our society. In order to address these challenges, solutions must not only be innovative, but above all also connect with society. After all, a good solution that is not used by anyone is no use.

Don't work from the solution

A good solution rarely starts with technology. Even the best technology cannot solve a problem if it is not crystal clear exactly what the challenge entails, what added value is exactly being sought or if there is no acceptance of it by the target groups.

This applies doubly to the major challenges we face as a society. At PA Consulting we regularly work on challenges with a major social impact, for which we not only come up with a solution, but also help to make it into a concrete and practical option. A thorough problem analysis is always the first step.

Take gene therapy which has the potential to lead to personalised treatments for rare diseases and cancers. But how does it fit within wider society? How do you make these treatments economically viable on a large scale, without compromising that personalised approach? How do you make it affordable to the population? It was not until we resolved these issues that this innovative project was able to pass the experimental treatment phase.

Another example is water purification. Australian Water Source had an innovative solution, but was unable to implement it where it was needed due to a lack of local infrastructure. Their solution has been adapted by decentralising water treatment plants using the Internet of Things technology, which means that  people who live 'off the grid' can also have access to clean drinking water.

Learning to innovate for society

Social innovation is a special branch of activity where a lot of factors have to come together successfully: the challenge, the solution and the match with society. If we want to move forward as a society, it is essential that we learn to look at challenges in this way. That is one of the reasons why PA Consulting organises the annual Raspberry Pi competition for schools, where we ask students to use technology to come up with a solution to a social problem. It is not enough to come up with a technically ingenious or "cool" solution. What we particularly want to see is that the participants have carefully studied the problem before starting to work on a suitable solution.

Learning to consider all aspects of a challenge, and also to have an eye for the wider social context, is an essential characteristic in successfully using technology for social innovation.

This article was first published in Management Impact.

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