David Price, OBE
Sofia Leal is a 15-year-old social entrepreneur, living just outside Bogota, Colombia. Her principal set her class a challenge: create a new product or service that meets a social need. Sofia came up with 'Neigloo' (which translates as 'new igloo') – a carbon-fibre, retractable fan-shaped emergency mini-house for people who have lost their homes to natural disasters. She designed and built a prototype and took it to the UN, which enthusiastically endorsed the concept. At USD1,000 per unit, Neigloo is low-cost to mass produce; however, by December 2020 Sofia was struggling to raise funds to make her creative design a reality.
Meanwhile in the UK, another 15-year-old, Jacob Bell, was looking for good causes to support through his candle-making social enterprise, One Small Candle (from the Chinese proverb "It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness"). By chance, Jacob heard of Neigloo and, after a hastily arranged Zoom call with Sofia, was able to commit to support Sofia's vision through Christmas sales of high-quality scented candles.
Sofia and Jacob provide reasons for us to be cheerful. They are shining examples of a sense of optimism that we can all feel in the post-Covid-19 world, and demonstrate the value in being part of something bigger than ourselves. They show that the immense challenges facing society over the next decade or so (climate crisis, social inequity and more) have the potential to be met through networking and knowledge-sharing across borders. Indeed, the opening up of knowledge enables rapid innovation and is becoming the only way to solve urgent challenges.
Of course, the pandemic has been catastrophic. But it has also provided us time to take stock, and offered a global 'learning moment'. So many aspects of how we live and work have been changed, and we've discovered that openness, connectivity and movement multiply opportunities. Communities can now outperform bureaucracies, and very often they do so by demonstrating 'Cosmo-Localism'.
The development of dozens of coronavirus vaccines in record time is a good example. By freely sharing the genetic code of the virus to anyone, anywhere (the 'cosmopolitan' part), the Chinese authorities made what is normally considered scarce – namely intellectual property – widely available1. This enabled scientists to share knowledge and produce vaccines at the point of need (the 'local' part). Along the way, the traditional duration of a three-phase clinical trial has been consigned to history – shortening from years to weeks.
At the start of the pandemic, when governments around the world were failing to supply health workers with personal protective equipment, thousands of self-help groups stepped into the breach: medical gowns were stitched together by legions of sewing circles; students downloaded open-source designs from the internet and then commandeered school 3-D printers to produce face shields for local doctors (Cosmo-Localism, again). Politicians spent millions on Covid-tracking apps that later proved to be incompatible, while Avi Schiffmann, a 17-year-old living near Seattle in the US, built one in a matter of days2. For free.
So, what does this learning moment mean for organisations and business? I believe there are two key implications:
First, Covid triggered a wave of 'user-innovation' – already a growing trend, but greatly accelerated by the pandemic. According to a 2019 study3, 54 per cent of new inventions were developed by users, not producers. From surfboard shapers to biohackers and citizen scientists, ordinary people have been increasingly demonstrating 'mass ingenuity'. The coronavirus simply provided the lightning rod it needed.
The rise in user-innovation has been described as 'the invisible industrial revolution – hiding in plain sight'. It took the biggest health crisis in over a century to highlight that the mindset of user innovators is very different to that of producers. User-innovators welcome risk and are highly inclusive 'tinkerers', working fast among communities of learners around the world, rapidly prototyping solutions and reiterating from failure. By contrast, corporations and governments were frequently caught off-guard by the unexpected events of 2020, often responding too cautiously and too slowly.
The lessons from the biggest growth industry of all – digital tech – were there for all to see. The personal computer may have been built by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (who later founded Apple), but it was the collective intelligence of the hobbyists at the Homebrew Computing Club, who were happy to share code with the two Steves, that catapulted desktop computing into our consciousness. Similarly, during the pandemic, engineers from the Mercedes Formula One design team formed an unlikely partnership with doctors from University College Hospital in London. Together, they designed and manufactured a new form of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine in less than 100 hours.4
People-powered innovation is driven not by 'customers', but by users. The smarter companies already reach out to their community of users for new ideas and solutions. Going forward, NGOs and governments will need to do the same, and all will need to connect with – and learn from – one another. Innovation is now open, and it will never be closed again.
The second lesson is that the humility to collaborate with a far wider circle of innovators requires a new style of leadership. The organisations of the future will be like New York-based cultural consultancy sparks & honey. On entering its offices on Madison Avenue, you are confronted by their 'OPEN Manifesto': "We believe the future is not just about us. But about all of us. We believe in inclusiveness. And in business that stands for something bigger than profits. We believe in bringing the future to the present. And that future requires collaboration to solve challenges big and small."5
Once inside, it's impossible to miss the icons of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) around the walls. Terry Young, sparks & honey's CEO/Founder, insists that before any new project is taken on, it has to address at least one of the SDGs.
Although the business incorporates Q, an artificial intelligence machine that analyses millions of cultural 'signals' per day, the heart of sparks & honey's collective intelligence is found in their 'human network'. They recognise that, with culture, personal bias is inevitable. So, having the most diverse international human networks of experts imaginable (from college students to retired CEOs, from Moscow to Manchester) helps alleviate such biases. This balance, between AI and a global network of humans, has enabled sparks & honey to see 70 per cent revenue growth per annum.6 Innovation is found in diversity – and it can never be monocultural again.
Leaders, in a post-Covid world, need to be in 'perpetual learning' mode. Curiosity, humility, empathy are all vital to creating the right organisational culture. The new CEOs are culture builders.
James Watt, founder of the fastest-growing craft brewery in the world, Brewdog, has seen his business expand exponentially over the past decade. In 2010, James and co-founder, Martin Dickie, were selling a handful of cases of their beer at farmer's markets in Aberdeen, Scotland. Now, Brewdog is valued at USD2 billion7, with bars, breweries and hotels all over the world. It is part-owned by a growing community of nearly 150,000 'equity punks' who have co-created new recipes and taken decisions on branding. Brewdog's mission, 'to make other people as passionate about great beer as we are', cements their bond with user-innovators.
Like sparks & honey, Brewdog also practices 'radical transparency', posting all their recipes on the company website to encourage users to make their own beer. If that weren't enough for an upstart start-up, Brewdog recently became 'carbon-negative'8.
The irony of these 'purpose before profits' businesses is that they can't stop making money. When outdoor clothing company Patagonia famously tried to stop people from buying their products – instead offering to repair any garment for free – garment sales took off.9
The past decade has seen an erosion of trust, a rise in populism and a resistance to globalisation. Conversely, we have also lived through a period of mass social movements – more than in any previous decade. Such movements (#blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #occupy) have become more impactful, not least because of their global connectivity, utilising technology and social media to powerfully get their message across and learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.
Today's mass movements bridge class, race, age and often geographic boundaries. Take the climate emergency: Extinction Rebellion was initiated by a group of UK academics, while the largest protest demonstration ever seen was organised by a highly connected network of schoolchildren, led by Greta Thunberg of Sweden.
We've also witnessed a rise in trust in our corporate leaders, and a greater sense of social purpose in company commitments. As a result of the pandemic, and these corporate and social shifts, an opportunity has now arisen for a powerful problem-solving alliance that brings together conscious capitalism and communities of user-innovators. If the new breed of CEOs could mobilise the mass ingenuity repeatedly seen throughout the pandemic to address the global challenges looming, imagine what could be achieved.
During another turbulent era in history, one of America's Founding Fathers, Thomas Paine, wrote the pamphlet 'Common Sense'. Paine coined (at least) two indelible phrases. Arguing that 'the time has found us', he claimed, 'It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies.'
The experience of Covid-19 has once again reminded us that we are all globally connected – no-one is safe until all of us are safe. The global response to the pandemic may have highlighted the recent dangers of insularity among nation states, but an army of hobbyists and hackers joined forces with health workers and scientists to show remarkable ingenuity and grassroots, people-powered innovation.
The leaders of our organisations, in public and private sectors, carry the deep responsibility of making the world a better place, not simply increasing shareholder value. They can best achieve that by reaching out, not closing in, by making connections, not divisions, and by leveraging the creative power of us.
David Price OBE is the author of The Power Of Us: How We Connect Act And Innovate Together and Open: How We'll Work Live And Learn In The Future. His culture change agency, The Power Of Us, works with organisations by helping them to become more innovative.
At HSBC Global Private Banking, we want to bring the world closer to our clients. We believe the only way to do this is through connection and collaboration, and innovation rather than imposition.
Despite the challenges facing our world, new possibilities are set to emerge, and it will be those who embrace openness and ingenuity who find the solutions to life’s everyday and big-picture problems.
We celebrate the innovators and the entrepreneurs who are on a journey towards making an impact, because success in the future will require new ways of thinking and new ways of working together.
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1 "China releases genetic data on new coronavirus, now deadly," Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, January 2020 ↩
2 "High school student near Seattle builds website to serve as a leading place for coronavirus information", GeekWire, March 2020 ↩
3 Brandonjic, P, Franke, N,and Luthje, C, Decision-makers underestimation of user innovation, Elsevier, 2019 ↩
4 "Design of new breathing aid developed by Mercedes to be made freely available", Formula 1, March 2020 ↩
6 Sparks & honey culture briefing group, Deloitte, March 2018 ↩
7 "The New Beer Barons", Forbes, January 2020 ↩
8 Brewdog Make Earth Great Again sustainability report #1 ↩
9 "The more Patagonia rejects consumerism, the more the brand sells", The Correspondent, April 2020 ↩
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