Leveraging design to help overcome key challenges to creating shared value

Design is used extensively to “reimagine social change” (the tagline of the best known “shared value” consultancy), yet design is largely ignored in efforts to create shared value (i.e., to expand the connections between social, environmental, and economic progress). Tis perplexing given the increased acceptance of the need for “design thinking” to play a role in creating business strategy, though perhaps understandable given the persistence of outdated concepts of design and of the role of designers in business.

Plus, the benefits of employing design have been rising, since great progress has been made in understanding how to effectively design for positive social and environmental impact. And those benefits are needed now more than ever, as social and environmental problems seem increasingly insurmountable while corporations, seeking innovative ways to differentiate their offerings and improve shareholder value, struggle to understand them adequately to determine whether they can address any of them as part of their core business strategy. Indeed, shared value goes beyond typical corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects, which are peripheral to core business and exist largely to manage brand and reputation. Hence, corporations are not accustomed to addressing social and environmental problems in this way.

Non-profits, governmental institutions, and community groups — i.e., organizations conventionally considered to have greater responsibility for addressing social and environmental issues — are also not accustomed for corporations to address social and environmental problems in this way. As Michael Porter and Mark Kramer have stated,

“Leaders in both business and civil society have focused too much on the friction between them and not enough on the points of intersection.”

Indeed, shared value partnerships with corporations can more greatly than corporate philanthropy or CSR ease the financial strain such organizations often experience while achieving greater impact than would otherwise be possible.

More from Porter and Kramer:

“Capitalism is an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth. But a narrow conception of capitalism has prevented business from harnessing its full potential to meet society’s broader challenges. The opportunities have been there all along but have been overlooked. Businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face. The moment for a new conception of capitalism is now; society’s needs are large and growing, while customers, employees, and a new generation of young people are asking business to step up.”

And businesses have begun to step up, as suggested by Fortune’s recently published list of companies changing the world “using the profit motive to help the planet and tackle social problems.”

But figuring out how to achieve shared value and doing so is difficult. Corporations excessively focused on short-term economic gains may lack the patience required to make this work. Figuring things out often requires consideration of entire ecosystems, the meaningful participation and collaboration of many, and determining how to align the purpose of multiple stakeholders. Corporate executives and managers must shift their mindset from being in total control to one that empathizes with people and business partners that they typically haven’t had to engage with in the past.

Designers schooled in effectively designing for social and environmental impact know, among other things, how to:

  • consider entire ecosystems, facilitate the meaningful participation and collaboration of many, and facilitate the alignment of purpose of multiple stakeholders;
  • achieve an adequate understanding of social and environmental issues, suspending often false presuppositions in order to appropriately and creatively frame those issues;
  • generate insights that identify opportunities to “reimagine social change” (and/or environmental change) and accompanying business strategy change;
  • explore and test potential opportunities for creating shared value without risking damage to the social or environmental sector or a corporation’s reputation.

The integration of such design expertise with expertise more typical of business innovation process but specific to the concept of shared value and its successful implementation should greatly help organizations overcome key challenges to creating shared value.

— — — — —

Unsure about the ethics of the concept of shared value? See Porter and Kramer’s two publications referenced above and Phil Preston’s recent “Answering the Critics of Shared Value.”

Desire a better understanding of shared value from the perspective of non-profits? For two examples, see OE Strategy’s Susan Wolfe talk about Vayu, a non-profit delivering healthcare via drones in remote locations around the world (from the 12:15 time mark to 26:55, embedded within talks by Phil Preston and Derek Wood) and Mark Wexler’s talk about Not For Sale, a non-profit he co-founded with the mission to put an end to human trafficking.

Desire a better sense of the role design and designers can play? See slides from the March 2018 version of my workshop entitled, “Question everything — Designing more effectively for social impact,” my recent conversation with Marc Rettig “on what it takes for companies to move toward social and environmental responsibility, how we might help, and what that means for design,” and the entirety of the curriculum of the Austin Center for Design, where I am a member of the faculty.

I have begun to work with Phil Preston — who provided input on this post — on leveraging design to help organizations figure out how to effectively create shared value. What questions do you have about all this? Please share them via comments below or by contacting Phil or me directly.