Social Innovation is a highly effective strategy for any organisation that wants to operate in a sustainable manner. But what is driving the need for Social Innovation? It is largely driven by three types of change: social change, environmental change and technological change.
Across the world, society is changing in many ways but in particular we are experiencing a rapid rise in urbanisation, as rural populations head for cities in search of a better life. Back in 2014 the United Nations reported that 54% of humanity was living in cities and that rapid growth in urbanisation would take place in India, China and Nigeria.
Urban societies often experience problems with pollution, transport and food quality as infrastructure designed for far smaller numbers of people struggles to cope. Meanwhile, humanity is growing more populous. Improvements in agriculture, sanitation and healthcare mean that people are living longer. In 2015 global average life expectancy was 71. Back in 1980 it was around 60.
This is a wonderful thing of course. But it does mean that there are more and more people on our planet, putting extra strain on natural resources.
Another important change is wealth. People in many countries are becoming better off and a new middle class is emerging, particularly in India and China where large populations have experienced huge income growth.
With more money comes a desire for better food, better transport, better housing and more demand for consumable products. As a result, increasing wealth puts a strain on global resources especially around food, energy and raw materials.
Another downside of increasing wealth can be a rise in inequality, as some people get left behind by economic growth. This can cause increased social tensions, especially as better communications and international media, including the internet and social media, mean that there are more opportunities for people to see how wealthier societies live.
And finally there is political uncertainty all around the world. International business can play an important role in stabilising society by providing an engine for economic growth and employment, being a source of technology and innovation.
Another driver of Social Innovation is environmental change. As people move away from agricultural economies, as they cluster in cities, and as they demand more consumer goods, pollution rises. And pollution causes damage to health as well as the natural world.
And then there is climate change. Our world is getting hotter and with other climate change impacts coastal areas and low-lying coastal countries are amongst the most seriously at risk. A rise in sea water levels caused by melting polar ice is causing flooding. Extreme weather events caused by a warmer climate in turn cause storm damage.
Pollution and climate change combined put at risk the fundamental biological support systems of the planet including the basics of life: water and food.
Social, environmental and technological change is not happening evenly around the world. Different regions have different problems to grapple with:
- Europe: Much infrastructure including railways and power stations is aging; and there is an aging population supported by a dwindling economically active population. In addition increasing wealth drives consumer demands
- North America: Like Europe, much of North America suffers from a post-industrial society with problems around aging populations and the prevalence of diseases such as diabetes and certain types of cancer
- South America: Land degradation and the loss of forest cover are affecting biodiversity. Island communities in the Caribbean face storm and flood damage caused by climate change. There are high levels of inequality with many communities unable to access education, health and basic services such as electricity and clean drinking water
- Africa: Poverty, famine, drought and civil strife are driving migration to safer and richer lands, while in some areas rapid urbanisation causes issues of pollution and poverty. Some pre-industrialised societies may well find development is cut short by automation before their countries are rich enough to invest in and benefit from automated manufacturing
- India and China: These countries are suffering from a combination of rapid urbanisation which can cause pollution and water quality problems together with the demands made by a growing middle class of consumers; in addition China is suffering from an aging population
How technology can help
The third driver of Social innovation is technological change. After all, as human knowledge increases, we get better at making things. Technology can help human society in untold ways and Hitachi is at the forefront of developing new and sustainable business solutions that do this.
Some of the most important technologies that can be used in Social Innovation include:
- Automation can provide people with safer and more fulfilling jobs and by increasing productivity can at the same time raise wages and increase wealth
- Ever more powerful computing including “big data” analysis and the development of machine learning and ultimately Artificial Intelligence
- Increased connectivity between people (the internet, mobile phones, transport) and also between machines (the Internet of Things)
- Renewable energy sources such as more efficient solar and tide energy and better energy storage
- Better methods of managing disease in people, animals and plants such as new drugs and gene therapy together with ways of creating disease resistance in animals and plants including GM crops
- Innovative and smart materials that are better at filtering or that have self-healing properties or the ability to breakdown into simpler non-polluting materials under certain circumstances
- New chemicals for increases in agricultural productivity and water treatment
In fact technology and Social Innovation are delivering positive changes around the world.
Human rights are being strengthened. Data analysis combined with increasing transparency in communications means that equality and diversity issues are being highlighted. Communication empowers ordinary people to come together to combat injustice. Hitachi is helping ordinary citizens guard their privacy with technology for the secure anonymization of personal data.
Healthcare is being improved. Technology can provide cleaner water and increase the efficiency of agriculture, helping to ensure that sufficient food is available for all. Infant mortality continues to fall as new ways of managing health, even in remote communities, are found. And technology helps elderly people out of loneliness and into better health. Hitachi has developed systems for improved cancer screening.
Industry becomes more sustainable, more socially responsible. Digital technology helps with work-life balance without damaging productivity. Workers can access life-long learning and develop the new skills that a changing world demands. Factories become more efficient, using less energy, wasting less material and creating less pollution. Hitachi’s artificial intelligence systems can predict and manage demand fluctuation.
Education becomes more powerful as it can be accessed online by all including poor rural populations. It is harder to manipulate as people have access to different viewpoints and can uncover their own truths. They can get the information that is relevant to them and to the opportunities that they have. In addition people can be made more aware of the fragility of our own environment and the need to care for it.
Community life becomes more vibrant through better communications, enabling people cut off from their fellows to socialise and people who want to engage with the less fortunate to contribute to society. At the same time we can use technology to protect our privacy, rather than steal it. And we can educate one another, sharing our knowledge and experiences.
Cities become safer. As we congregate more and more in cities, we can use technology to make these spaces safer while at the same time guarding the privacy of the ordinary citizen and ensuring justice for all. And the problems inherent in city life such as congestion and pollution can be managed to acceptable levels. Hitachi provides solutions that make cities safer and more pleasant by analysing the flow of citizens through public spaces.
Our world faces a number of challenges, from climate change and pollution to population growth and urbanisation. Hitachi believes that it must help to find innovative and commercially viable solutions for these challenges. Visit Social-Innovation.Hitachi to learn how Social Innovation is helping Hitachi improve lives across the world.
Image credit: RomoloTavani under licence from iStockPhoto.co.uk.