If I would ask you today: what are the most successful innovations around? Most likely names like Facebook, Apple or Candy Crush would come to your mind. Less likely you would name d.light, affordable renewable energy for low-income people, M-Pesa, the most successful mobile money transfer system for the unbanked in Kenya, or JITA, an innovative way of reaching the unreachable in Bangladesh. The former create needs in over-saturated markets, the latter create new markets to address stringent social needs.
Paraphrasing Steve Jobs, the main question for any professional dealing with innovation is: “Do you want to change the world, or spend your life selling apps in the App Store?” We have, in other words, lost track on what innovation should do: solve real problems and address real needs.
There are many reasons for this phenomenon of serving saturated markets. One that strikes me can be found in business schools, where too often students are taught that the only reward is a financial one. Simple metrics, including the euro or dollar sign, influence MBA rankings like the one of the Financial Times enormously. Looking from this angle, a great number of meaningless mobile apps are extremely successful and resonate in the minds of young professionals.
It is slowly changing though. Business solutions are implemented every day to solve important social needs, creating a new industry that rewards both profit and impact. Aspirations from students for running a business with social and financial value also influence the curriculum. Sustainability, corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship are making their way up as key topics in top courses worldwide and we are proud to be able to contribute. For instance, the BoP learning lab network with the World Business of Sustainable Development offer the 2nd edition of an online executive business course, or through summer schools on inclusive business, offered by the Nyenrode Business School and BoPInc. From INSEAD on social entrepreneurship, to Cornell University on BoP markets, to HEC, there is an increasing recognition of the importance on new business forms like inclusive business.
Developing more of these curriculums and programs will eventually pave the way for a new generation of talented business leaders with both a business and social acumen. Leaders that can successfully deal with the complexity of unequal income levels, or with the challenge of fostering partnership between companies and NGOs. These leaders will see the quality of the education they received not only from the salary it generated, but also from the positive social impact it has created.