Innovation for the common good

Designing for the common good text in image, image by BIS Publishers

Image: BIS Publishers

In summary: 
  • UTS Senior Lecturer Melissa Edwards, Deputy Director of the Designing Out Crime Research Centre Rodger Watson and founder of creative studio, Agency, Murray Bunton will be headlining Shapeshifters – Doing Social Good
  • The public lecture, being held on Wednesday 18 May, will explore how the common good and large-scale collaboration can be the key to social impact innovation

For every one per cent the gap is narrowed between rich and poor, there is a 0.38 per cent rise in economic growth.

“So, yes, it’s really worth investing in a more equal society where people’s needs are met,” says Deputy Director of the UTS Designing Out Crime Research Centre Rodger Watson.

Watson, together with Senior Lecturer in the UTS Business School Melissa Edwards and next-generation entrepreneur and founder of creative studio Agency Murray Bunton, will be speaking at UTS’s Shapeshifters public lecture on 18 May.

UTS Senior Lecturer Melissa Edwards UTS Senior Lecturer Melissa Edwards

In the lecture, titled Shapeshifters – Doing Social Good, Watson will share insights into the unique methodology he and his team developed to work with organisations on complex problems. He will cite social impact projects that range from setting up an educational facility in a high-security jail to preventing the poaching of wildlife.

Key to his team’s approach is to begin a project by asking – what is the common good?

“It’s usually around a core human value,” explains Watson. “So, in the example of poaching, rather than look at arresting culprits – which is a value of punishment – we would approach communities that the poachers live in and explore what can be done to make life more economically sustainable.”

It’s an approach used by Edwards and her colleagues in the UTS Business School too. Edwards, an expert in sustainability, management and social impact, takes an approach to research that combines complexity theory, design thinking and appreciative inquiry.

“Rather than focus on the problem itself, we look more broadly and work on the assumption that there is no optimal solution. But the purpose must be clearly focused on inclusive social and restorative environmental impacts. It switches your thinking to consider the context of the issue in relation to the bigger picture.”

Deputy Director of the Designing Out Crime Research Centre Rodger Watson Deputy Director of the Designing Out Crime Research Centre Rodger Watson

The picture that both of these researchers look at is vast. Edwards cites a ‘tear down’ workshop she ran as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Disruptive Innovation Festival with stakeholders in the NSW glass industry. Glass is notoriously energy intensive to recycle – it takes just 20 per cent less energy to recycle a glass bottle as it does to make a new one.

Rather than look at the problem of waste, stakeholders were asked to view the glass production ecosystem. Soon enough people were sharing information and asking questions about the pigments used and where materials were being sourced. “When people collaborate like this,” says Edwards, “problems become opportunities.”

Indeed the key to social impact innovation is large-scale collaboration. “Problems like these don’t just apply to one person,” affirms Edwards. “They can’t be solved by one entrepreneur or one organisation.”

In one of Edwards’s workshops two competing companies identified an opportunity to collaborate. “These great things happen when people are in opportunity-seeking mode – it’s when they get back into the office that they’re limited by conventional business practices.”

Companies and organisations can be reluctant to change their mode of operation. However, Edwards is gathering case studies of social impact innovation that works. “When the social and environmental benefits are clear, the business case emerges and change starts to occur. I’m hopeful, that over time, thinking will change.”

Watson agrees. “In the private sector there is a golden ratio for innovation – 70 per cent is incremental, 20 per cent is transformation, 10 per cent is radical. Our methodology is radical.

“What’s interesting is the return on investment. For that 10 per cent investment you get a 70 per cent return. This approach is next generation. We are training the next generation of social entrepreneurs.”

To register for Shapeshifters – Doing Social Good, email