Innovation in digital tools and purpose-led practices shine as key drivers for business success

Dr Laura Bell

by Dr Laura Bell, Programme Lead for Glasgow City of Science and Innovation – lead delivery agency for the CAN DO Innovation Summit

THE last few years have brought immense pressures and unforeseen challenges on companies of all sizes, including the small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) that are the lifeblood of Scotland’s economy. The digital revolution, environmental crises, social justice movements, international conflicts and the pandemic have underlined the necessity for agility, resilience and innovation to enable businesses to adapt and survive. 

Today’s investors, employees and customers are increasingly concerned with environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, highlighting that it’s not about what businesses do – but how they do it. Innovative businesses are beginning to acknowledge their power and responsibility to embrace the values-based, responsible practices that can set them apart – allowing them to outpace their competitors by making deeper connections with their customers, partners and workforce, whilst delivering greater value for society. 

Curated by Glasgow City of Science and Innovation, Scotland’s national CAN DO Innovation Summit, held virtually at the end of February, was designed to offer insight for SMEs on the tools they need to adapt to shifting economic and social challenges. Over 40 world-leading experts and local innovation leaders from a range of sectors – from the creative industries and digital health to manufacturing and the space industry – gathered to discuss exemplar digital transformation and ESG practices that will lead to inspiring better ways of doing business. 

Gayemarie Brown, CEO of Wintam Place Consulting and Forbes Top Tech Futurist kicked off the event explaining that a whole host of new technologies, from cloud computing, blockchain and IoT to AI, robotics and renewable energy, were quickly becoming cheaper, digitised and more accessible. She outlined that business leaders needed to wrap their heads around how these would impact their businesses – and what they could do cheaper, faster and smarter by leveraging these technologies in order to remain competitive and avoid obsolescence. Brown said: “Tech is moving fast – there will be no companies that are not, at least in some respects, a technology company in the future”.

Other panellists at the summit outlined that SMEs account for almost 50% of UK business emissions, so their role in the country’s net zero emission goals will be crucial. But from lack of access to finance to a lack of skills; SMEs face barriers in reducing carbon emissions, and the pandemic has exacerbated many existing pressures. Additional support and incentives will be needed to help SMEs meet the vast opportunities inherent in the transition. 

Dr Steve Welch Director of Ideas at KTN explained: “There’s been a real shock to the world and our habits around ‘just in time’ delivery. Long supply chains are suddenly harder—and certainly more expensive. For every type of business there are new opportunities that have been accelerated by the pandemic, which might mean using different materials or using innovative techniques. There’s now a lot of pressure in terms of controlling your costs to run an effective business. Also, wherever you are in a supply chain, your customers are going to be interested in your environmental performance as an additional factor for them.”

Stuart Patrick, Chief Executive, Glasgow Chamber of Commerce also outlined the shifting context for companies: “At COP26 the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, Chaired by Mark Carney, announced their aim to get 450 financial institutions to agree to deploy £93 trillion worth of investments to green objectives.” 

Patrick pointed out: “That in itself has fundamental implications for SMEs for how they raise money in the future – where a strategy around achieving net zero will be expected as part of the criteria of assessment. It’s not just about responding to consumer behaviour – it’s also going to be about responding to your financiers – and for that matter all those chairs, CEOs and multinationals looking at how their supply chains are fulfilling their own corporate objectives.”

“There will be many opportunities for SMEs to contribute to how we tackle systemic, global net zero challenges – but every SME also has individual choices to make on how they run their business, from those who are existentially challenged, such as those in air transport, right through to small companies that are going to be asking more questions about consideration over their supply chain or the circularity of their products – or even how they heat their buildings or travel to work. In each case choices can be made by SMEs, but clearly the systems, such as transport networks, have to change around the SMEs to make those choices viable.”

Ifey Kanu, Founder and CEO of Intellidigest concurred: “The key things are financial – about how you get the money and human resource to be able to deliver on the things you want to do. We’re really excited about the support we get from the Scottish ecosystem and the organisations that want to engage with us. If you’re based in Scotland, you’ve got a great opportunity.”

As well as ‘greening’ businesses the summit also explored the evidence around why the more innovative and productive firms will place diversity and inclusion at the heart of a company’s purpose to accelerate transformative innovation that impacts profitability – as well as people and the planet.

The businesses taking part in the summit exemplified the fact that creating diverse, and inclusive workforces, services and products isn’t just morally right – it is key to tackling complex problems. As Nick Jones, CEO of Zumo put it: “The market incentive aligns with it being the right thing to do.”

New ideas from employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders can be harnessed to unlock creativity, productivity and drive business performance.

Keynote Mari Anne Chiromo, Entrepreneur & Business Growth and Effectiveness Specialist summed it up succinctly: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. That’s the big theme now. Is it possible nowadays to have a successful business where diversity, equality, inclusion, belonging aren’t actively integrated into the strategy? I would say no.”

Chiromo went on to outline that, without different voices and perspectives around the table, for example, during the design of a product, it was far less likely to appeal broadly to different ethnicities, ages, abilities and sensibilities. In other words, you limit your own customer/client base and with it, profitability scope, just by excluding diverse voices from the table.

She said: “You could risk rolling something out and then losing huge market traction because you’ve either excluded or inadvertently alienated a whole section of the market. Having diversity at all levels and especially where any key decisions are being made, is about building the capability for someone to say, ‘well, that doesn’t really work for me so it’s going to land the same with everyone else within my demographic – how do we improve it?’ – and that is powerful. For me, it’s about recognising and incorporating the expertise and the insight that people bring.”

Chiromo also outlined the importance of different people feeling safe and empowered to voice their opinion. It’s not enough to just focus on target metrics or optics and call it a day.  You have to enable those diverse voices to thrive, including creating space, developing them and enabling them to progress.  What have you done to change your culture so it’s one that has evolved with the make up of its, often newly, diverse workforce.

Chiromo added: “Otherwise, you’ll have diverse people there, making up numbers.  If they don’t actually speak because they don’t feel comfortable, you’re not going to get the benefit of their diverse insight. You’re going to roll out your product or service in the same way, and it’s going to fail – despite the fact that you had diversity in the room.”

Keynote Wade Davis, Former NFL Player and Educator on equality, diversity and inclusion who has consulted for Netflix, Google and Viacom, among other global firms continued the theme, outlining how tech organisations are not non-profit and not rooted in trying to have a social justice ethic. He explained that, when we understand the purpose of a company, and why it exists, then we can show how the principles and values of higher levels of representation and inclusion helps organisations achieve their ‘why’ – and it begins to feel like a ‘must have’ and not a ‘nice to have’.

Wade noted that we often hear business leaders ask for the ‘business case’ for diversity inclusion, but that this is really asking to prove that that, for example, women, people of colour or people with a disability, have value in industries that they are often not currently well represented in. He pointed out that there is no business case for heterosexual, able-bodied white men – it was thought of as self-evident that they are capable and competent to build and to lead businesses – and the same belief has to exist about everyone else.

CAN DO Innovation Summit will be hosting an event, The Future of Fashion – The Tech Edit, on April 28 as part of its award-winning event series, Art of Possible. Art of Possible is a regular meet-up series of the event programme, which culminates in the summit annually. To find out more or register for free visit www.candoinnovation.scot

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