Six Strategies for a Solution Economy

Oct 10, 2013

"If you see a problem in your world and make an effort to solve it, you’re already a change maker," says Janet Foutty, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP. (Photo: Ian Wagreich/U.S. Chamber of Commerce)

It is 8 a.m on a cold, rainy Thursday and people are trickling into the marble halls of the U.S. Chamber for the Business Civic Leadership Center’s corporate responsibility conference, The Network Effect.

While the rest of us clutch our coffee and shake rain drops off our clothes, Janet Foutty, a 22-year veteran at Deloitte Consulting LLP and the newly-appointed leader of the federal consulting practice for Deloitte, seems completely unfazed by the weather, the D.C. traffic, or the fact that later that evening she’ll attend 16 separate parent-teacher conferences, courtesy of her high-school-aged twins. Back in Chicago, by the way. 

Foutty is kicking off day two of the conference by talking about how businesses, nonprofits and their employees can make the most of the Solution Economy. The Solution Economy, Foutty explained, is one where problem solvers--whether it’s businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, individuals--“close the gap between what people need and what the government can provide. When business works together with government and nonprofits, the results can be dramatic.”

In her speech, Foutty outlined the six strategies that are helping organizations and people to transform themselves and the world around them.

Change the lens: Forget how you currently do things. Think bigger. Foutty used the example of tackling childhood obesity. Most people make a list of the same stakeholders: parents, doctors, schools. But someone broadened the lens and decided to reach out to influencers. Who influences kids? Well, it’s not pediatricians. It’s NFL players. In October 2007, the NFL launched NFL PLAY 60, a national youth health and fitness campaign focused on increasing the wellness of young fans by encouraging them to be active for at least 60 minutes a day.

Target the gaps: “Think of yourself as gap fillers,” Foutty said. Fill in with solutions where governments and others have fallen short. Foutty pointed to Unilever, which started a small program in India in 2010 focused on promoting the simple act of hand washing. The company created a special soap that wouldn’t destroy the rivers where many Indian people washed their hands. It also created a smaller, more portable soap. With more than 6,000 children under the age of five dying from diarrhea every day, Unilever partnered up with the schools to teach children the importance of washing their hands. By 2012, the program had expanded into 16 countries, including six of the top 10 countries most affected by child mortality.

Rethink constraints: Galvanize idea generators. Encourage new ideas, and be prepared: they might come from some pretty unlikely places. Foutty pointed to the X Prize Foundation, an non-profit organization that designs and manages public competitions intended to encourage radical technological breakthroughs that could benefit mankind. It’s a pretty big mission, but they’re doing great things in partnership with corporate sponsors, Foutty noted. They discovered a new solution to speed up the pace of recovering oil on the sea surface. They organized a global competition to inspire a new generation of viable, safe, affordable and super fuel efficient vehicles. Right now, they’re looking for ways to capture key health metrics and diagnosing a set of 15 diseases on a hand held device. 

Embrace lightweight solutions: It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the best solutions to a problem are also the cheapest. Everyone who’s signed up for something has experienced CAPTCHA, that box of squiggly letters at the bottom of a website that are supposed to ensure that you are not a robot, but indeed are a human. It’s right there in the acronym: Completely Automated Public Turing Test To Tell Computers and Humans Apart. But the program actually has a low-cost social good as well. Carnegie Mellon is using the free crowd-sourcing power of CAPTCHA to preserve old books and manuscripts. They use software to examine scanned images of the texts and turn them into digital text files but the software is unable to read about one in 10 words, due to the poor quality of the original documents. Rather than hire a slew of readers, Carnegie Mellon takes images of the words which the software can't read, and uses them as CAPTCHAs. When visitors decipher the CAPTCHAs to gain access to the web site, the answers are sent back to CMU. So next time you decipher a CAPTCHA, you could be saving another old book or manuscript.

Buy differently: “Procurement is a powerful tool,” Foutty said. Again, Unilever provides a great example of this purchasing power. Half of Unilever’s raw materials come from farms and forests and the decisions that it makes on who it sources from, and how it works with them, can have profound implications on global resources, climate change and farmer livelihoods. The company has made a commitment to sustainable sourcing, including purchasing all palm oil sustainably from certified, traceable sources; sourcing 75% of the paper and board for its packaging from certified sustainably managed forests or from recycled material; and making sure that all the tea in Lipton tea bags are sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ estates.

Measure what matters: It’s not just about the ROI, it’s about the ROC (return on communities), Foutty said. Unilever’s hand washing campaign has been good for both, ROI and ROC. The company is selling more soap to more people and  saving lives. “That’s a marketing campaign with a social benefit.”

For more examples on innovative and successful initiatives, Foutty recommended “The Solution Revolution: How Business, Government and Social Enterprises Are Teaming Up to Solve Society's Toughest Problems.” The book, written by two of Foutty’s Deloitte leadership colleagues, Paul Macmillan and William D. Eggers, delves deeper into how non-government entities can play a key role in addressing societal problems such as the rising cost of health care, road congestion and education, and how government can enable and facilitate this change.

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