Leveraging social innovation for sustainable change

A new era in sustainability innovation is emerging.

Our fascination with technology has by no means come to an end, but there is a rapidly expanding realization that social innovation and human behavior are keys to achieving a more sustainable future. Technology alone just isn’t going to cut it. While net zero buildings, thin film solar, electric vehicles, membrane bioreactor water treatment, and pollution eating concrete offer new ways of meeting a myriad of needs, these kinds of solutions alone can’t prepare us for catastrophic climate change or engage the broadest sector of our communities.

And there is an increasing realization that government alone is ill equipped to figure our way out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into. The enlightened corporate and NGO sectors combined with crowd-sourced creativity are where the public sector now looks for ideas and partnerships. At the recent Clinton Global Initiative North American summit held in June in Denver, the closing panel discussion moderated by President Clinton included social entrepreneurs from Kresge Foundation, Zappos and Morgan Chase.

Tony Hsieh, Founder and CEO of Zappos and author of the book Delivering Happiness, explained his social and place-based $350 million side-project called The Downtown Project. This initiative relies on crowd-sourced innovation to help revitalize the Las Vegas neighborhood where Zappos took over the city’s abandoned City Hall building to house their headquarters.  The move brought 1300 employees into the blighted neighborhood. The new venture focuses on small business development, education, tech startup and real estate investing. Their website states “Community development is more about the people than real estate…By catalyzing community efforts, we hope to inspire people to follow their passions…to build the most community-focused large city in the world…”

Audrey Choi, CEO with Morgan Stanley of the Institute for Sustainable Investing, talked about doing well by doing good via their wealth management platform. Revitalization of blighted urban areas and affordable housing are included in their portfolio of investments that focus on generating positive social and environmental impacts as well as financial returns. These financial titans are challenging the idea that values-based investments can’t create a return; indeed some of their investments appear more similar to what we have previously thought of as exclusively philanthropic. What they know is that it’s the boots-on-the-ground of passionate, practical, and place-based entrepreneurs that will make a project sing, give it life, ensure social uptake, and deliver long-term returns.

Hsieh bases some of his metrics for company and neighborhood social (and thus economic) vitality on what he terms numbers of “colllisions”, or incidental encounters of community members with one another. His term is “ROC” or Return on Collision. Any good brick and mortar retail developer knows that level of retail corridor street activity is directly correlated to sales. But not only does such activity deliver profits, Tsien sees the resulting social ties as critical to happy, engaged employees or residents who care about where they are and one another. When such caring occurs, more of the “right” behaviors appear and more of the “wrong” behaviors get crowded out.

Desired behaviors could range from choosing public transport to get to work, to volunteerism, starting a bike repair or child care business, or investing in a community garden. The “wrong” behaviors could range from sedentary habits and unhealthy eating choices, to wasting water on giant lawns, to urban flight or even fraud. We begin to see that synergies exist between livable communities, quality of life, and resource efficiency.

Being part of a connected community results in shared norms and values, and higher levels of social “contracts” which are self-generating. These social contracts can’t be legislated or forced into existence, but they can be fostered through the creation of vibrant, walkable, connected and diverse places. Behavioral economics looks closely at how to motivate the behaviors we want, and how to use technology as a means to this end. Virtual communities use mobile apps to create social networks that transcend place.

New mobile apps rely on research about why people behave the way they do, and create communities based on social contracts. Yifan Zhang is co-founder and CEO of Pact, a fitness app that gives you cash rewards for living healthy, paid for by members who don’t. The Pact app gets you to commit to workouts and healthy eating by putting your credit card on the line. If you follow through on your commitments, you get rewarded; if you don’t, financial penalties acrue.

Kim Polese, CEO of Clear Street, has partnered with business to deliver a personal suite of financial tools to encourage personal saving through social savings groups and via quickly planning and tracking your spending and savings actions with information feedback loops and virtual “high fives.” Both apps have high success rates.

The City of Austin recently worked with app developer Joulebug to create a custom app for Austin to guide citizens to greener lifestyle choices that will save them money, earn prizes, and connect them to friends and neighbors. The Rethink Austin App relies on incentives and peer pressure to change behaviors at home and office, during commuting, shopping, and more. And it educates people while they are having some fun. The tool tracks participation and results for energy, water, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions. Houston recently launched a similar Green Houston App.

We need more fresh and interactive social media tools to bring pressing environmental issues such as climate change, drought, and congestion down to the personal level and make the issues more relatable. How do people begin to understand they are a part of the solution? And how do we leverage what motivates us to change, to create the sustainable future we desire? All this brings to mind a famous quote attributed to Margarate Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

New technologies have not replaced the need for citizen action, but rather have offered up entirely new tools to be put to the service of transformational ways to live, work, and lead change in our own backyards and beyond. 


Lucia Athens is the City of Austin’s first Chief Sustainability Officer and author of the book “Building an Emerald City: A Guide to Creating Green Building Policies.” She is an advisor to the Clinton Global Initiative, SXSW Eco, and a Fellow of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council. Follow on Twitter @LuciaAthens

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