Sustainable life in the fast lane

Sustainable life in the fast lane

Just ahead of the events of the past week, I spent a day listening to a room full of optimism and ambition at Wayra’s excellent Corporate Acceleration event, part of London Technology Week.

Corporate acceleration is big business, providing support to early stage start-ups via training, mentoring, office space and capital. They provide an alternative to the traditional VC route and, for a growing firm with the right idea, can also mean access to a ready-made, often global, market.

The sector is a welcome example of increased collaboration between large multinationals and start-ups, as highlighted in this recent FT article, with everyone from John Lewis and Autoglass to Microsoft and Telefonica (backers of Wayra) getting involved.

Say hello to a new world of collaboration. At a time when traditional business models are creaking under the threat of those pesky, disruptive newcomers, part of the answer seems to be to grow your own.

But this isn’t a model whose sole preserve is the private sector. Alongside the corporates and banks, it was refreshing to hear the likes of NHS England, the Cabinet Office and Haringey Council talk about the search for innovative partnerships to deliver public services more effectively. And in among the corporates and innovation specialists working with them, you will find WWF-X, the accelerator from WWF that aims to transform 10 industries in the next 10 years through sustainable innovation.

What struck me is the degree of crossover between corporate acceleration and sustainability programmes: innovative collaborations between large and small to deliver programmes with a social purpose and a fit with a corporate’s sustainability vision – or the aims of a large charity for that matter. It is an area with clear potential to marry the creativity, innovation and energy of our most-exciting start-ups, with the backing and networks of big corporates.

The most effective sustainability programmes are known to be those which sit right at the heart of a business, inextricably linked to its core strategy and sense of purpose. So the same needs to follow for accelerators, especially if they’re physically not present.

An accelerator needs to provide the right environment, physical and cultural, to attract entrepreneurs, to allow ideas to flourish and in particular not to sap their energy by tying them up in needless bureaucracy or procurement drills.

What this could lead to, though, is a natural temptation to keep the partnerships apart, especially if the accelerator itself has a slightly arms-length existence to the main business to begin with.  In organisations where sustainability efforts already sit at the periphery, the danger is they could become an add-on to an add-on.

Making any partnership like this work undoubtedly takes a lot of effort. The cultural differences may be pronounced; the pace of decision-making may differ sharply, but there are a lot of people out there making it work and businesses queuing up to apply.

Yet there is a big difference between a smart commercial application and one with a social purpose that supports the core values of the business; it’s arguably even more important that the leadership of the organisation directly champions this style of innovation. It’s also an opportunity for those heading sustainability teams to change perceptions of their work and imbue the rest of the organisation with a different way of thinking when it comes to tackling the most important corporate challenges.

Enlightened businesses realise that the process of creating a sustainable organisation, far from being a box-ticking exercise or a series of worthy partnerships, should sit directly at its heart and drive its core values and behaviours. With the right leadership, that is exactly where this type of entrepreneurial thinking and new business models should be heard, not out on a limb.

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