Tag Archives: innovation

CSR or Real Innovation

Yesterday Dan Schulman, Group President of Enterprise Growth at American Express opened SOCAP’s third day in San Francisco by talking about the company’s work to address the issues of financial inclusion for the underserved.  

 Globally 2.5 billion are excluded from traditional financial systems. One third don’t have access to bank accounts resulting in precious time and money wasted to seek out facilities simply to access cash from their own hard earned paychecks. With 2-4% taken as a service fee in addition to interest and other fees, the figure that the underserved pay was $89 billion in the U.S. alone last year.

Since the market’s collapse in 2008, financial platforms incorporating both technology and addressing inherent lifestyle challenges have been a burgeoning industry for entrepreneurs.   Backed by the Omidyar Network, Mango now has a presence in 6 countries that empowers underbanked adults by offering a complete set of online and offline services that are convenient, low-cost support lifestyle decisions that affect financial decisions.

Given the market opportunit ,the question is whether American Express’s launch this summer of the documentary “Spent: Looking for Change” produced by Davis Guggenheim and the announcement of American Express’s Financial Innovation Lab, are just CSR window-dressing or indeed reflective of a deep brand pivot within the company. For American Express, a brand that has long stood for exclusivity, this type of shift to inclusivity would be significant. But there are reasons to believe, despite the absence of a non-binding legal framework that requires both social and financial value to shareholders, that this indeed is a deep company-wide pivot.

The primary reason is that the Great Recession showed us that the status quo of our financial eco-system was essentially destroying the customer base.   The second is that the hallmark of a great brand is demonstrating a leadership position in driving marketplace change. And the third is that American Express was founded some 160 years ago as a freight-forwarding business. Hardly a brand for the high-minded but certainly demonstrative of a company that knows how to read the market and succeed.

Great brands will pave the way for sustainable business-based solutions to our growing social challenges and there is every reason to believe that American Express has been gearing up to lead real marketplace change.

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Ideas Made Real: Day 1

Two red eyes later and here I sit at the legendary UNICEF Innovations Lab in Kosovo. Legendary, you say? Why yes, you haven’t heard? Though only months into their official launch, the concept behind the Innovations Lab Kosovo has tremendous potential for conflict strewn regions to provide a platform and voice for social change amongst the communities that have the most ability to see and drive the future of it – youth.

Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe and also has the highest number of youth at over 50% of the population of 2 million and with 73% of those aged 18-25, unemployed. With the war only 11 years old this provides a huge challenge to a society that has been ripped apart with ethnic conflict and societal upheaval.

The UNICEF Innovations Lab is not a novel idea – there is Global Pulse, there is Instedd Labs, there is the HUB. However it is a new approach for UNICEF given its role in upstream policy work and experience in working with government around the imperatives of children’s rights. First launched here in Kosovo, the UNICEF Innovations Lab strives to create opportunity for change by connecting academia, government, the private sector, NGO’s and students. The problems – plentiful and urgent – are introduced through UNICEF’s relationship with the government and addressed collaboratively by design through the Lab and its participants.

In Kosovo, 10% of children go unregistered at birth. This creates a slew of lifetime problems limiting the quality of their life from the second they are born. Lack of access to social services, employment opportunities and risk of exploitation through child trafficking, prostitution and other life altering threats are a result of non-registration and ethnic minorities are the most at risk.

Solutions created through technology have tremendous opportunity to meet a variety of criteria. The mobile platform in particular provides a means to collect, send and track data in real time, creating transparency and also immediately actionable items. And concepts like the Innovations Labs create really interesting opportunities for resource mobilization with technology companies. Which is really the reason I’m here – to learn more about the opportunity and how it can track to corporate support, and to hopefully contribute a little in the process.

So, back to Day 1.

This morning started out with a tour of the 40 staff Kosovo field office. Of course everyone was so welcoming and the tour of the office up and around and around the staircase ended in a beautiful little office with a balcony overlooking one of the main roads through town, Luciano’s office, my host and the Deputy Director of Kosovo.

A few paces out the front door and up an alley to the left our tour led us to the Innovations Lab. A really bright space outfitted with an inviting sitting area, 12 work stations and a requisite bean bag throwdown brainstorm space – the Lab was everything I imagined it to be and even more pleasant in the afternoon sun with the open door blowing in the slight breeze. See here for loads of pics

And, the on-site Innovateers are awesome. There’s Arbnor who runs the Design Center. Afertidie who leads capacity building with the BYFY students, helping them build and track to budgets and project reporting. Etnik, a summer intern working on the web site and IT issues. He’s an original Kosovar but new to living in Pristina after moving to New York when he was 7 . Ron manages the BYFY projects and I’ve yet to meet a few of the others who were out today.

After our morning meetings of getting to know each other, planning my short weeks here and discussing the challenges that the team faces, we left for a group lunch to Café Mexicana. Mexican food in Pristina! Be still my heart.

The focal point of the afternoon though was a visit to the University of Pristina where we met with the Dean of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department and a Professor of Computer Science to discuss student participation in the Labs. Right now there are 4 students working with the Design Center to receive course credit for 6 weeks of work on projects including birth registration, youth service mapping and vaccine management. The meeting was set up because we need many more students and for longer duration. Our goal is to bring corporate mentorship to Kosovo as part of a larger resource package, bringing technology, funding, mentorship and internship opportunities and we need more students to fulfill our part of the value equation. The variables in this work are endless but there is real heart for the outcomes and the UNICEF experience card is a heavyweight when it comes to making these crazy ideas a possibility.

However, the highlight of the day might have been my very short introduction into the realities that most Kosovars live with. On our way back from lunch, my conversation with Affie turned suddenly serious as we started talking about what might make Kosovo different than what I had anticipated. What you don’t see hidden between the fresh new buildings, she explained, is the reality of a citizen base that either fled or spent months hidden in basements, avoiding the eye of the invading Serbs. Affie spent 9 months with 30 other family members tucked away out of sight, something she didn’t want to elaborate on and which she said no words could describe the feeling of. I deeply respect that sentiment though of course I am curious to know more as it’s this kind of humanity that many of us in the western world can’t fathom but need to understand exists.

MDG Mania


It’s going to be a big week in New York City.  With five years left in its charter, the General Assembly of the UN will meet at The Summit on the Millennium Development Goals on September 20-22 to discuss and identify opportunities to accelerate progress of these ambitious, yet critical obligations for our global human welfare.  Across town the Clinton Global Initiative, established just five years ago, will also be holding a conference with its members on the progress they’ve made toward their annual commitments, many of which support the efforts of the MDG’s.  Climate Week kicks off as well – a regrouping of those involved with the disappointing talks in Copenhagen last December. And sprinkled throughout the city, NGO’s will be conducting their own meetings and work sessions to bring business leaders, non-profits and ordinary citizens together to address the critical challenges and requirements necessary at every level of society if we are to meet the goals set to be achieved by 2015.

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25 things…an innovation tool

25-thingsHow many articles have you read about “leveraging social media”  yet how much real implementation have you seen?  Researchers, companies pay attention.  Memes provide very specific opportunities to participate in social media phenomena.   And The 25 Random Things about [insert your product or service here] sweeping FaceBook – among others – is a no brainer to both implement and learn from.

People love to talk about themselves.  They also love to talk about the things they love (and hate for that matter).   Using FB or Ning or any other social network to initiate research on your product using this format has tremendous potential because it: 1) requires a long list…this means patterns will emerge; 2) it also means that people will be forced to think beyond the top well-published “issues”, they’ll be forced to think about the emotions and situations which cause them to love or hate – this leads to real usable insightful information;   and 3) besides yet another reason to publish a personal opinion, who doesn’t love participating in the trendiest thing out there?

Now, 25 Random Things about Me…….

carbon consumerism

Innovation is born of necessity.  And strangely the carbon cap and trade system just might fit into that category.  History has proven that we need crisis to catalyze change.  And then it requires everyone, and I mean everyone, to understand and participate in the solution.  So while the cap and trade system is targeted at businesses, consumers will play a huge reinforcement role.  Enter ideas like the Carbon Quotient Project.  The CQ is an extension of similar concepts launched in Thailand and Japan that essentially strive to create a standard unit for product labels.  Much like the nutritional fact labels that adhere to all packaged food products, the CQ could give us GHG’s emitted, reduced or otherwise advise on a stand unit of measure for the carbon footprint of each product.  We, the consumer, then have the ability to offset our bag of potato chips or bottle of beer by riding our bike to work or simply not purchasing.  There are actually a million different behaviors that this could launch but the bottom line is that we would start to become educated relative to a standard unit (so the theory goes), hold businesses accountable and gradually start to bring about global responsibility and accountability for how businesses are impacting the deteriorating environment around us.   It has been said before but change is incremental.

innovation gone awry

At first I loved this idea:  a clock-radio that racks up the cash contribution to charity every time you hit the snooze alarm!  How clever I thought.  This takes real innovation in terms of examing our every day behaviors for the purpose of mining it for something good. But then I read, and actually re-read, the copy.  You’re supposed to set it to the charity that you hate so that the double-negative of “wasting” your money while wasting away your productive hours angers you into getting up…..huh?  Why all the negativity?  Is that a way to start the day?  Why not set it to your favorite charity and enjoy the fact that those needed extra minutes of sleep are not only helping your body recover but helping someone else too?

peerless innovation

October 24, 2008

In the context of a world largely screaming for regulation, we once again see a visionary business man at work. The Washington Post reported that Bill G distributed 104 grants of $100,000 each through the Gates Foundation to grants that may prove productive partially because they don’t incorporate the traditional peer review requirements that seem a necessary, but stifling requirement of medical research.    While I am all for accountability and a dose of fact-checking, innovation happens when you break the mold, push the boundaries and dare to think out loud (over the protests of your peers).      And while we’re at it…..there’s wild speculation about his new company bgC3.  Is it a business venture?  Is it a philanthropic venture?  Call me crazy but given his background….would it be that outlandish to think its a think tank for philanthropic business ventures?