Innovation at Rio+20

Brazil, country of samba, carnaval, color and caiparinha. But also the country known for the international sustainable development convention in 1992. This convention actually marked my career.

I was studying in those days and became triggered by the question how the private sector could contribute to international sustainable development. Mr Pronk, former Minister of Development Cooperation, decided after the convention to create an innovative way to work on sustainable development. In 1993 the sustainable development treaties were signed with Costa Rica, Benin and Bhutan. All segments of society should become active, and the main principles were participation, reciprocity and equality. In 1994 and 1995 I led student exchange programs between Costa Rica and the Netherlands. We analyzed and discussed each others models of sustainable development. And we wondered how the private sector could become more engaged and leading change. Twenty years later, a new convention on the same topic, in the same nation. I was told 50.000 people will be here for the negotiation. I will join the corporate convention ‘Compact 4 Rio‘, organized by the Global Compact and the WBCSD, which will attract around 3.000 people.

Rio+20 Corporate Sustainability Forum

First Day – June 15
On Friday June 15 the launching event took place. The chairman clearly called upon the corporate participants to be pragmatic, reach clear agreements and provide new insights on how to reach scale. Ideas for new ways to match sustainable development ambitions with core business objectives are needed. Of course there will be a lot of attention to reaching scale in protecting the natural resources (energy, water, biodiversity). But, already there is one full morning session on the Base of the Pyramid (BoP). The corporates I talk to understand what I mean with ‘BoP’, and show interest in our visions and experiences. I wonder what really comes out of these meetings. I understand that we should not expect real change, but one positive thing I can already observe, is that people get new energy and hope being with like-minded people. They feel they are not the only ones searching for new business models. A feeling that most managers of big companies often may have. And creating a specific platform for corporate players also helps to obtain practical examples of what works and what doesn’t. That may lead to a concrete impact of this big meeting, but we will never be able to measure nor prove it. We can only hope that the carbon footprint and resource investment made to be here, may lead at the end to a better world and more wealth at the Base of the Pyramid. I believe that spreading our ideas and experiences at this strategic level, can have as much impact as a concrete meeting or training in the poor communities in the initiative that we are running in the north of Brazil. As long as we keep on doing both, develop in practice, learn from it, and accelerate change by sharing these experiences at a strategic level.

2nd Day – Saturday June 16
Good and inspiring start of the conference. The first session I attend is about accelerating business engagement in the BoP, organized by Business Call to Action and WBCSD. Kick off was by Jane Nelson of Harvard Univeristy. She emphasized on the importance of;

  1. Linking new business strategies with core business operations and value chain activities. Companies should be more strategic, creative and innovative about values of business creation.
  2. The need for fundamental new models of operating; new business models; social business models inside ofthe companies. Also there is a need for new financing models and new incentive models, within companies and external market incentives from financial sector.
  3. Need for more collective platforms, f.e. companies in the agro food sector that create a platform in order to have impact at a systemic level.

This conceptual introduction was immediately followed by an inspiring presentation of the Brazilian cosmetic company Natura. One of the interesting and inspiring challenges they have put themselves up to is to set up an open innovation platform in Manaus. The vision is to convert the Amazon area into a ‘silicon valley’ for local sourcing and sales of natural ingredients based cosmetics.

From the multinational enterprise examples mentioned it was good to hear SAB Miller mentioning their cooperation with DADTCO as being an exciting and successful initiative. DADTCO is one of the companies BoP Inc. works together with as part of our collaboration with IFDC and ICRA in the 2SCALE project. DADTCO brings the processing factory of cassava into the field so farmers can sell the root to the processing industry for all kind of use.

Stuart Hart also added his insights to the meeting. He explained that the first ten years of working on BoP business development provided 5 important learnings;

  1. Embedding; stripping cost and introduce is a non starter. Mentality at ToP doesnt work in bop. Importance of participatory approach.
  2. Converging; 10 years ago focus on selling, but how generate economic activities in order to lift the bop? There tends to be the risk to loose out of sight the environmental side of bop business development, while the Bop is actually the incubator for tomorrow clean tech solutions.
  3. Enabling: it has to be more than CSR. Most innovations end up crushed by existing structures. How to create new innovation white space in companies.
  4. Scaling; most efforts get stuck in pilots. It is clear that parties involved need to be more imaginative in order to make this work. One interesting way is to add the dimension of trickle up. While starting in the BoP, this can very well move up to the MoP and ToP market. This reverse innovation process helps to scale both on volume as well as profit margins.
  5. Measuring; BoP business interventions. Is about creating mutual value. Not about splitting up share, but creating new share for everybody.

The session provided enough food for thought. But also made clear that at least an incipient but growing number of companies are triggered by the BoP proposition. At least 120 people attended the meeting, and contributed actively to the discussions.

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