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Social Impact: Market Imperative, Market Opportunity

Social Impact: Market Imperative, Market Opportunity Panel

At the 2017 Babson Entrepreneurship Forum, the closing event was a panel titled “Social Impact: Market Imperative, Market Opportunity.” Cheryl Kiser, Executive Director of the Lewis Institute, introduced the session.

“The theme of the Babson Entrepreneurship Forum is to make an impact. This panel will explore ecosystems that support socially-focused ventures. A startup’s connection to society is a competitive advantage and allows the company to truly improve the state of the world. Every social and global issue today is a business opportunity. This session is centered around how partnerships happen and how these partnerships have the opportunity to advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.”

Chris Lloyd, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Verizon Communications, first spoke about how Verizon partners with higher education and communities.

“Social issues are huge market opportunities. Michael Porter talks about this with the idea of shared value creation. After 2008, as companies look for their place in society, the ability to create value is key. At Verizon, we connect people. In the digital world, that simply meant providing phone service. In today’s mobile world, the intensity of the interactions and partnerships has increased. Our mission is to deliver the promise of the digital world to our partners.”

“We don’t have all the answers- the entrepreneurs of the future do. We want to learn from you how to use technology to increase our impact. We have partnered with the Lewis Institute and Jennifer Bailey, who helps run the IoT for Good Social Innovation Lab. We aim to use our technology to create value. Right now, we are working in the education space because when people do not receive a quality education, they do not have a path to economic sustainability. We are working with underserved middle schools nationwide to teach them relevant skills. A lot of the schools have the technology but the teachers don’t know how to integrate it into the curriculum. We provide them with professional STEM education and relevant skills training. A surprising percentage percent of students does not have Internet access, so we gave them devices and access to the Internet. For some families, this is the first time they’ve had their own Internet connection.”

“Our other focus is the Internet of things (IoT). If you can connect anything to the Internet, you can make it smarter. For example, we can add sensors to the road to create “smart asphalt,” therefore creating an enormous data set to help traffic planners understand interactions on certain roads. Most urban planning is based on static models. If we can put a real data set in front of a planner, they can choose the design that makes the most sense. We are here with Babson because there are a million more applications of our technology that we need your creativity to think of. We’re working with Professor Jennifer Bailey to introduce IoT as a solution to social and environmental problems. Babson helps educate the next generation of business & civic leaders, and we view you as our next generation of employees and customers. This partnership is invaluable to Verizon.”

Luiza Aguilar, Executive Director of Perkins Solutions, discussed the use of IoT to solve a long-term problem.

“Perkins is known for its world-renowned school for the blind, but it also has a small innovation team called Perkins Solutions. We started with a simple problem- many of my blind colleagues could not find their bus stop. Mainstream transportation is critical to connecting a large amount of the population to healthcare, employment, and more. It’s important for everyone to be able to access it. Currently, GPS services on our phones lead us to within 30-50 feet of the destination. To the blind, this is known as the last 30 feet of frustration.”

“We designed a crowdsourced solution to this problem by building a free mobile app called BlindWays and asking people to participate. Sighted users can add landmark clues to assist those who get confused in the last 30 feet on the way to their destination. A grant from Google allowed Perkins Solutions to build the app in collaboration with the MBTA and a local mobile app development firm called Raizlabs. The app makes it easy to contribute clues to help visually impaired users find the bus stop and includes predicted bus arrival information so that they know when it is coming. BlindWays provides clues as users walk to help them find the bus stop. For example, they will know they are close when they pass a bench or know they’ve gone too far when they reach a driveway.”

“We launched the app in the Apple Store last year in collaboration with the MBTA, and the release was widely covered by local media. There are 7,800 bus stops in the MBTA system and 5,300 of them are cataloged on our app. Thousands of blind and sighted people have downloaded and used BlindWays.  Our next step is to get involved with Babson’s IoT For Good Social Innovation Lab and continue making improvements to help blind users find their way. It’s very exciting to see technology being used to solve stubborn problems.”

Jennifer Bailey, Assistant Professor of Technology and Operations Management, and Ben Linder, Professor of Design and Mechanical Engineering, spoke about the importance of cross-sector and cross-discipline collaboration.

“IoT For Good is all about designing and cultivating things for social impact. In particular, cultivating powerful partnerships is vital. Ben and I co-teach a class called Integrated Product Design. This class has formed the basis of the way I think about IoT. With a complex problem, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we need to disrupt and search for breakthrough interactions to co-create new solutions across disparate points of view. Collaboration is the new competitive advantage. Those involved in one sector, whether it be private, private, or social, typically don’t collaborate with other sectors. It’s even rarer for all three to collaborate. The BlindWays app is a great example of the power of cross-sector collaboration between Perkins Solutions from the social sector, MBTA from the public sector, and Raizlabs from the private sector. Collaboration is important because nobody has a single set of resources to solve the entire problem. Half of the challenge comes from understanding the issue. In the case of the BlindWays app, Perkins Solutions took the lead by finding the problem and serving as the face of the product to users. They co-created a solution with Raizlabs, then MBTA joined to make a real impact. Each partner brought complementary resources to the table. Perkins contributed information about the target community and the Google grant of $750,000. Raizlabs contributed expertise and indirectly brought financial capital to the table by offering Perkins Solutions a discount rate for their services. MBTA offered free marketing exposure on its buses and has entirely funded the second phase of the project.”

“Cross-disciplinary collaboration between business, design, and engineering is equally important. We need all three for disruptive breakthrough innovation. In our Integrated Product Design class, we teach Babson, Olin, and MassArt students. They all see the world extremely differently but need to collaborate to make real progress. Be active about incorporating complementary skill sets into the solution. These are the principles on which the IoT Lab is built: Cross-sector and cross-disciplinary collaboration.”

Professor Linder presented several examples of cross-sector partnerships that have come from the Integrated Product Design class, explaining that social ventures are a “team sport” because partnerships are everywhere. Cheryl Kiser closed the session by saying that social innovation can start either with an idea or just with partners you know you want to work with. To truly embody Babson’s mission of creating economic and social value everywhere, cross-sector and cross-disciplinary partnerships are key.