When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, it is unlikely he could have foreseen that it would become a social media phenomenon attracting 600 million users worldwide, including 10% of the population of a country such as Indonesia. This example of the far-reaching potential of private sector innovation to stimulate massive societal impact is why inspiring our innovators and ‘reimagining our businesses’ demands our sustained attention.
Business plays a fundamental role in imagining, and indeed creating, the society of the future. The innovators of smartphones may not have imagined them from the outlet as catalyst for freedom and change, but that’s what this technology has the potential to achieve in Africa. Unilever may not have set out to create a company that would protect millions of low-income consumers from life threatening diseases through a simple water purifier device. When William Welch Deloitte undertook the first ‘independent audit’ in history, of the Great Western Railway, could he have imagined that his pioneering spirit was laying the foundations of assurance and trust between private enterprises, and between business and wider society?
Business has been, is now, and always should be playing a major role in inspiring and effecting the massive changes taking place in our constantly evolving global society, driving towards a better future for everyone. This is because business pioneers innovation, and innovation drives the change that enables the realisation of society’s goals. It is hard to imagine society without business, without the breakthroughs in technology, trade, information management and organisational development that business has facilitated.
Private enterprise at its best builds a better society, and enhances the quality of human lives. Yet looking back over recent years of shocks to our UK and global economy, any business concerned with acting responsibly would note the impact on wider society when elements of our globalised business model unravel. Had there ever been any doubt, the co-dependency of a flourishing society and a flourishing marketplace is now abundantly clear to all.
In an ever more borderless global marketplace, the growing interdependence of national economies and private enterprise is significant. It is the core business of business – far more then the philanthropic extras – that impacts society most, for better or for worse. What business produces and makes available – from pharmaceuticals to fibre optics, nuclear power to telecoms, textiles to tarmac, financial instruments to personal computing technology – is all about building society.
Generalised statements about the purpose of business outside of profit are no substitute for the rigour of an enterprise defining its particular contribution to society through its core activities. We must better understand the contribution our businesses make to the economic, environmental and social progress of the UK and beyond. We must make that contribution clearer to our wider constituency. Considering the purpose of every business in societal terms can help galvanise, inspire and check employees and investors, educate and inspire wider society, and support leaders in ensuring their organisations contribute to the common good. Already around 20% of Fortune global 500 firms are publically positioning their core business in terms of its positive impact on wider society.
Creating such an environment begins with fostering a culture of receptiveness to new ideas and fresh approaches to problems. Entrepreneurial spirit is as decisive a part of success in large, established multi- national corporations as it is in energetic start ups. Freedom of speech and association is essential to a flourishing social and political culture. Likewise, to anticipate and even shape the marketplace – driven by the needs and desires of a changing society – we need the conditions that enable creativity in our organisations. We must explicitly create these conditions to invite the emergence of new ideas.
Business is about envisaging the change we want to see in the world and working towards implementing that change. We must open more eyes to opportunity and re-imagine business innovation as the ignition key for a flourishing future society. By re-examining the purpose of our businesses, we can empower and enable our talent. Only through fostering entrepreneurial spirit can we enable investment in innovation to secure a robust and agile future for our own corporations and, ultimately, to inspire transformational global change.