Brown’s Super Stores in Philadelphia, has done what other grocers considered impossible — built a very large, successful for-profit business selling suburban quality food to people in the poorest neighborhoods of the city. In an industry with paper-thin margins, Jeffrey Brown, the founder, runs his business in a way that strengthens the communities he sells to as his company grows.
His approach embodies “social design,” the most recent development in the continuing evolution of doing business in a way that benefits all stakeholders and the larger community.
One of the earliest manifestations of more socially conscious business appeared in the mid-1970s with “cause marketing.” It typically pairs a corporation and a nonprofit to address a worthy cause. For instance in the wake of Hurricane Florence, T-Mobile donated $5,000 for every home run hit during Major League Baseball’s playoffs and World Series last year to support hurricane recovery efforts by military veteran-led Team Rubicon.
This evolution continued in the 1990s, when corporate social responsibility (CSR) gained widespread traction as a way for businesses to hold themselves accountable for their environmental and social impact. In the early 2000s, lofty purpose was joined to the traditional financial interests of shareholders in the form of “conscious capitalism,” pioneered by companies like Starbucks and Whole Foods, who factored in the social effects of their business decisions before the fact.
More recently, “creating shared value” has sought to go beyond responsibility and socially conscious decision making and put corporate assets to work creating value for the society and the community. Even more recently, “social innovation” proposes to address social challenges through the invention of new mechanisms like emissions trading or micro-finance in poor countries.
Each iteration along this continuum shortens the distance between good business and good behavior. Together, they multiply the options—all worthwhile—for how ambitious and proactive a company can be, from aligning with a nonprofit’s existing cause and approach, to inventing unique, mission-critical new solutions.
Now social design is emerging. It provides a process for accelerating innovation, using social value creation as the way to drive financial success, and it builds creative capacity within the organization in the process. It relies less on long-term planning and more on real-time observation and feedback about what’s happening on the ground.
As part of the social design process, Jeffrey Brown finds inspiration in the needs of the communities that buy from him. He is constantly experimenting with ways to disseminate healthier eating habits through his stores teaching people how to manage diabetes and excess weight through diet, and translate complicated food labels into smarter purchase decisions. At his customers’ request, he has even experimented with ways to reduce gun violence in their neighborhoods.
In one of many community outreach meetings, a woman pointed out to Brown that many local residents are former inmates and that as long as it remains impossible for them to find jobs they can never afford to become customers. That led him to found UpLift Solutions, a nonprofit that trains formerly incarcerated individuals and guarantees them jobs in his stores. One third of Brown’s employees are UpLift graduates. They replicate Brown’s spirit of innovation and dedication to business and their communities, and their families can now afford to shop in the stores.
Social design is not entirely new. It adopts the same process used to develop innovative products and services—but applies it on a larger scale. What is traditionally done by a small team of expert designers becomes the work of larger, cross-disciplinary teams, including people inside the company and in external stakeholder communities. The goal, in addition to breakthrough products and services, is breakthrough interactions among people, leading to ongoing innovation. Because the process is participatory, everyone learns to do it. Because learning to do it instills a greater sense of agency and possibilities, everyone who participates is transformed.
Skeptics assume that engaging more people slows the innovation process down and encumbers decision making. In fact, it catches problems and recognizes unexpected opportunities in real time instead of waiting until serious resources have been invested in planning and implementation.
Like Brown’s Super Stores, other visionary organizations use the social design process to do what their competitors thought impossible as well. Interface, a carpet manufacturer based in
Atlanta, Georgia, is engaging residents of remote fishing villages, using the supply chain to save precious human and marine ecosystems while maintaining Interface’s position as the largest carpet tile company in the world. The MASS Design Group, winner of the Cooper Hewitt Museum National Design Award, has built a global architecture practice by eschewing the traditional egocentric orientation of architects in favor of involving the people for whom built environments are created. These organizations and others like them are proving that the most effective methodology for doing well by doing good is to design social value into financial value with people who will benefit from both.