How Companies can Build a “Purpose Platform” for the Common Good
We live in apocalyptic times. Everywhere we turn, we see a growing number of interlinked challenges – from rising inequality to environmental collapse – that will require collaboration between unlikely partners if they are ever going to be solved.
Businesses will need to work across boundaries to find solutions for some of their toughest work challenges, and, over the years, the case for Open Innovation has been made convincingly by folks like Henry Chesborough. In software, particularly, we are all familiar with the concept of product platforming, in which external contributors “extend a product’s functionality while increasing the overall value of the product for everyone involved.”
But what happens when the challenges aren’t tied to your product?
What happens when a company’s brand-activism leads it to engage with actors well beyond the closed walls of the business?
The Brand Activist asks: What is my brand, my organization, doing to solve the pressing problems of the world – the problems my future customers and employees care about?
The World Economic Forum points out a major problem in its 2019 Global Risks Report: precisely at this moment in history, when governments must work together, they are falling prey to parochial, nationalistic instincts that prevent collaboration!
Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis? Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Instead, divisions are hardening. The world’s move into a new phase of state-centred politics, noted in last year’s Global Risks Report, continued throughout 2018. The idea of “taking back control”—whether domestically from political rivals or externally from multilateral or supranational organizations—resonates across many countries and many issues. The energy now being expended on consolidating or recovering national control risks weakening collective responses to emerging global challenges. We are drifting deeper into global problems from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves.
Polarization and weak governance raise serious questions about many countries’ political health, says the report, and yet we see industry continue down the same path of maximizing profits come hell or high water (or both).
If companies can’t take a stand and act now, there is a good chance there will be no tomorrow.
That’s why an ecosystem approach makes sense. An ecosystematic approach to problem-solving requires a vision or manifesto – one that inspires solution providers to participate in solving the challenge.
What is a Purpose Platform?
What is a purpose platform? A platform to mobilize people across society – experts and community members – to create lasting and sustainable solutions to society’s most pressing challenges, i.e. the Common Good.
Purpose platforms mobilize people to act. They may even build a social movement. History tells us that movements (Civil Rights, Woman’s Suffrage, etc.) were all platforms for societal change. In a digital world, we see platforms for change sprout up all the time – from Move to Amend to Black Lives Matter. While we don’t see many companies building platforms of purpose, more and more are participating and supporting platforms outside their companies – see jovoto, the BoP Global Network, or OpenIdeo, for example of these types of purpose platforms.
Who can build a purpose platform? Anyone: a business; a school or college; a non-profit.
One can argue, as Greta Thunberg does so effectively, that No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference. Her individual efforts have sparked a global movement based on the power and conviction of her message: “I want you to act as if your house was on fire.”
Typically we find a core team of passionate individuals at the heart of such platforms. They are the ones Margaret Mead might have been talking about: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.“
But what the world needs now is a “coalition of the willing” – businesses, institutions, and individuals who come together to act.
Why build a purpose platform? Organizations must choose their why carefully. It must inspire and mobilize participants.
As we’ve discussed earlier, we feel that human beings are inspired by action projects driven by the Common Good, by purpose, more than they are by profit or greed. The key is to act – to make a difference in the outcomes that are important to society.
Public Value Creation: The Outcomes of a Purpose Platform
Participants in such a platform must ask: what and how do we measure the outcomes? What public value do we create? Are we solving the root cause of our challenge?
How do we define public value? We start with Professor Timo Meynhardt‘s statement: Public value is value for the public.
The question for a brand activist is: What action(s) can we take to maximize our contribution to public value?
To the naysayers, we say: wait, there are plenty of regressive brand activists running the world already. Why do you object if a brand wants to make a difference?
We envision a growing movement of digital public engagement where citizens organize around fountains of public value (instead of private profit pools) and build a more just economic architecture in which the ownership and profits are shared by citizens, with the government acting as an investor.
Architecting a Purpose Platform
Here’s what a purpose platform might look like:
The platform brings together the sponsors of public value creation, stakeholders, local and global partners, all with a single purpose: to act to solve problems for the Common Good.
Platform Sponsors: the companies, institutions, even government agencies that get behind the mission of the platform and fund its work.
Community Stakeholders: the people and organizations affected by the problem being addressed.
Local Partner Ecosystem: the actors that will deliver and maintain the solution in the community being served
Global Partner Ecosystem: the institutions that can help find and create solutions by tapping into their knowledge networks and supply chains.
A Purpose Platform: the technical and social ecosystem that allows participants to find each other and work on projects.
Common Good Projects: co-developed to make a positive impact for local communities.
Outcomes: the public value created by these projects.
Participants could work on a single or multiple projects to create public value, while constantly improving their knowledge and understanding of the various issues.
For a business or businesses that decide to sponsor a platform of purpose, the process begins with “purpose alignment” – making sure the goals and objectives are inspirational enough and concrete enough to launch a movement. A purpose platform is an exercise in designing meaning.
Leadership for the Common Good
Who leads? A new form of collective leadership is emerging is based on distributed leadership. Power is shared between the organizers and the implementers.
As we mentioned elsewhere, if markets are conversations, then the currency is trust.
What this means is that ordinary business or political messaging strategies are not enough. What leaders need now is a transformational messaging strategy based on truth, justice, and transparency.
A cultural framework is required to understand the extent of information pollution in an ecosystem: the amount of disinformation and malinformation that is (or will be) at play in the ecosystem.
As Greta Thunberg shows us, the message creates the movement. Her message is prophetic, a cry for justice in the wilderness that is modern politics.
We already know why our governments do nothing. So what can we do about it?
Purpose Platform Examples
The purpose of a purpose platform is to solve a pressing problem for the Common Good, and thus create Public Value.
Let’s look at a few examples:
- The $300 House Project
- Accountability Framework initiative
- The BOP Global Network
- A Community Renewal Innovation Lab
The $300 House
In 2010, one of us (Christian) was involved in just such an attempt – the $300 House project. The goal was to bring together an ecosystem of designers and architects, a collaboration between global design and engineering companies and non-profits with experience solving problems for the poor, to reinvent affordable housing in the developing world.
Quite by accident, the project took on a life of its own, and small teams sprung up all over the world – all sparked by a single blog post – with no budget and no startup funding of any sort. Overnight, it seemed to turn into a movement!
Without knowing it, we were using ecosystems of purpose to engage and involve participants. Harvard Business Review was our principal communications platform. Our design platform was jovoto, a Berlin-based German company that contacted us out of the blue. Our design contest sponsor, Ingersoll-Rand, also showed up “just-in-time” – and agreed to provide a cash pool of $25K to the contest winners.
Even though the contest has concluded, the project lives on. Small teams and individuals continue to work on the problem, even as larger businesses flounder in the same space.
Hennie Botes’ moladi was featured as the “Future of Construction” by the World Economic Forum in 2017. Another small team is working – across four continents – on a Smart Village design strategy for the developing world.
The Accountability Framework Initiative
The Accountability Framework initiative brings together collaborators like the Rainforest Alliance, Greenpeace, WWF, Imaflora, The Nature Conservancy, the World Resources Institute, etc. to help multi-national companies seeking to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains.
The Accountability Framework was developed from 2017 through May 2019 through an open consultative process involving diverse stakeholder groups. This process included three public consultation periods (October-December 2017 on the 1st draft Core Principles; July-November 2018 on the 2nd draft Core Principles and 1st batch Operational Guidance; and December 2018-March 2019 on the full draft Framework). These consultations included multi-stakeholder workshops in several tropical commodity-producing countries as well as in-depth conversations with companies, industry groups, government representatives, and peer initiatives working on issues of commodities, deforestation, and human rights.
The Accountability Framework provides a practical roadmap, offering principles and guidance at each stage of a company’s ethical supply chain journey.
There is a sense of urgency that is being communicated:
In recent years, hundreds of companies have pledged to eliminate deforestation from product supply chains by 2020 and to respect the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, and workers. But with only months left until the deadline, these commitments have yielded disappointing results. Farms and plantations continue to replace forests, grasslands, and wetlands, and human rights abuses remain widespread. While some companies have made progress, most are far from achieving their targets, and many have barely begun the journey.
Will the message be heard?
DSI4EU is an EU-based initiative led by Nesta and delivered in partnership with the Waag, betterplace lab, Fab Lab Barcelona, WeMake, Barcelona Activa and the ePaństwo Foundation. is supported by the European Union and funded under the Horizon 2020 Programme.
Digital social innovation brings together people and digital technologies to tackle social and environmental challenges, ranging from healthcare, education and employment to democratic participation, migration and the environment. A platform for these initiatives is digitalsocial.eu, through which users can:
- showcase their work through project and organisation profiles, and tag their organisations as part of networks like research alliances or membership bodies;
- explore the DSI community in detail through our searchable database and data visualization;
- identify funding and support opportunities, as well as DSI-related events, across Europe;
- find inspiration and stories of DSI through case studies, blogs and research.
So what’s the problem? Why haven’t these “social innovations” taken off? Partly, we argue, they are working on the wrong problems. And secondly, there is no prioritization of challenges based on the real needs of the citizens.
The BOP Global Network
Founded by Stuart L. Hart in 2000, the original Base of the Pyramid (BoP) Learning Lab was established at the University of North Carolina. Since then, Hart has played an integral role in helping to catalyze and launch eighteen new BoP Labs around the world.
The BoP Global Network was established to bring together global leaders to share knowledge and disseminate information regarding the theory and practice of sustainable business at the base of the economic pyramid. Rather than using traditional aid methodologies to help the poor and improve their quality of life, the BoP Learning Labs promote research and development of entrepreneurial business methods. The goal is to stimulate new enterprises that are economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, and culturally appropriate. This innovative idea has caught the attention of numerous academic institutions and other organizations around the world.
Today, the BoP Global Network has become a vibrant community of academics and practitioners in 18 countries that engage in knowledge creation and dissemination about the theory and practice of creating sustainable businesses at the base of the economic pyramid.
Community Renewal Innovation Lab
A similar platform for a Community Renewal Innovation Lab was recently proposed to help an inner-city urban population as well rural communities in Haiti and Honduras. The platform sponsor was a large public University, and its vision was to create better outcomes in health, business and entrepreneurship across the identified communities.
The Community Renewal Innovation Laboratory is viewed as a platform to engage global experts and partners and involve them in solving local issues. The University plans to be the orchestrator of public value creation.
It remains to be seen whether the mindset at the University will allow them to realize their vision in a meaningful way.
A platform that is truly collaborative might use a hybrid business model to bridge the gap from solution design to maintenance.
Enspiral is a network of groups and people, a DIY collective of social enterprises, ventures, and individuals working collaboratively across the world while fulfilling their purpose.
In many ways, Enspiral is a post-capitalist company. It’s an active network of 150+ contributors and friends from New Zealand and around the world, who participate together to support and amplify individual purpose, and steward the collective to its highest potential impact.
Their concept of “microsolidarity” is a crucial explanation of how ecosystems of purpose will disrupt the world of business:
If you want to be agile and adaptive in a complex and rapidly changing environment, you must move as much decision-making power as possible into groups that are small enough to be governed by spoken dialogue, not written policy.
The End: Public Policy to Support the Common Good
Government must be “run like a business.”
This is one of the biggest fallacies in the current political debate.
We are told, time and time again, that a candidate for public office is qualified because he or she has run a business. The assumption is that this makes them fit for government service. One only has to look at the failure of Rex Tillerson in the State Department to see that even the CEO of ExxonMobil didn’t have what it takes to do the job.
But to understand why this is, we need to look at what the job is.
What’s the job of government? Who is the customer?
Let’s answer this simply – the job of government is to serve the public in the public interest, or Common Good.
Unlike business, the government does not get to select which customer segments to serve and which segments to ignore. The government must serve all its citizens and constituents. When it fails to do so, it becomes dysfunctional.
Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter explain what’s going on in Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America:
The starting point for understanding the problem is to recognize that our political system isn’t broken. Washington is delivering exactly what it is currently designed to deliver. The real problem is that our political system is no longer designed to serve the public interest, and has been slowly reconfigured to benefit the private interests of gain-seeking organizations: our major political parties and their industry allies.
Take a minute to let that sink in:The US political system does not serve the public interest (or the Common Good).
Of course, these conflicts of interest are often hidden behind closed doors.
What would happen if businesses joined together to influence this “rigged system” for the better?
What would happen if government actually served the people?
Now that’s a burning platform of purpose, if there ever was one.