The Power of Physical and Virtual Networks for Social Impact

October 31, 2013

Imagine a place where you can collaborate on your new business venture, attend an event to learn about sourcing sustainable materials, join a hangout with impact investors from around the world, and bump into some of the key players in social innovation. In its more than 40 locations worldwide, Impact HUB does just this. As a collaborative community and coworking space for everyone from designers to entrepreneurs to investors, the Impact HUB creates physical and virtual networks for “social innovators” to collaborate on complex problems from poverty to climate change.

Penelope Douglas, the board chair of San Francisco’s Mission HUB and a panelist at this year’s BSR Conference session “Maximizing Investments for Social Impact: Lessons from Leaders,” spoke with us about how companies can harness their networks to achieve both social and business impact.

How do you think the power of networks will help the world achieve a sustainable future?

I focus quite a bit of my thought and attention on the entrepreneur/social innovator, for they are central actors in achieving a sustainable future. For entrepreneurs to achieve scalable, lasting enterprises that move the needle in terms of sustainability, they need to tap both place-based, physical networks as well as virtual networks that transcend their physical boundaries to secure the resources they need, share knowledge more rapidly, and replicate successes, as well as better understand their customer and market.

What challenges do business and stakeholders face in their efforts to have greater social impact?

Business and stakeholders need to join “networks of interest,” whereby interests are aligned and each contributes to strengthening the network. This is conceptually fairly easy, but in reality quite challenging. New technology platforms and tools are making it easier to build these networks of interest to support social and economic impact. Organizations like StartGrid and ImpactSpace that help entrepreneurs tap new resources for greater social impact and market growth are some of the fast-growing new companies focused on networking in the social capital arena.

What is the most significant change that needs to happen for business to help address some of the greatest social issues of our time?

I would like to see socially responsible businesses become members of communities of practice like the HUB, the Center for Social Innovation, and, of course, BSR. This offers tremendous potential for investment in innovation. Fundamentally, when socially responsible businesses invest in scalable social enterprises early on—as true strategic partners and with a long-term view on financial as well as social return—that is when we will really see change in how business can drive social progress.

The BSR Conference session builds on a session hosted by I-Dev International at the 2013 SOCAP event on helping the social enterprise sector navigate the challenges of working with global corporations.