Social innovation – making the world a better place, or is it?

In this day and age countless companies across the globe claim to innovate and strive to "make the world a better place." Are they, though, anywhere near achieving their public-spirited and ambitious goals?

A recent New York Times article explored this burgeoning concept of social innovation and found that many of today’s companies are solving all the wrong problems. The article makes light of a few innovative companies and their claim of bettering the world, including a service that virtually packs your suitcase for you, a mail delivery service that delivers a new toothbrush head to your door every three months and a smart zipper that alerts you when your zipper is down, to name a few. In the grand scheme of things, the companies that claim to be bettering our daily life are really only targeting a minute portion of the world’s population and failing to address the problems that really exist and need attention.  

Clay Tarver, the writer and producer of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, which chronicles the launch path of an innovative startup that “wants to make the world a better place,” recently wrote in a New Yorker article: “I’ve been told that, at some of the big companies, the PR departments have ordered their employees to stop saying ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ specifically because we have made fun of that phrase so mercilessly.”

And Tarver has a point. Many startups claim to make the world a better place but fail to understand what it is they’re attempting to better and just what it means to truly innovate. According to Jessica Helfand, author of Design: The Invention of Desire, today’s companies, when innovating, are focusing less on truly creating, but more on “undoing the work of others.”

She argues that today’s pursuit of innovation has lost its way and that it’s missing a few key ingredients–empathy, humility, compassion and conscience. Helfand warns that the current state of social innovation is failing, with these companies claiming that their entire point of existence is social welfare, but in reality they’re devoting their time to problems that don’t really exist.

-- Zack Petersen

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