Last April, Unilever hosted its ‘Sustainable Living Lab,’ a 24-hour, global social innovation online event aiming to generate new ideas across four key areas: – sustainable sourcing, production, distribution and consumer behaviour change. Recently, the world has witnessed a wave of businesses pioneering new ways of putting into practice the concept of ‘a problem shared can be a problem solved’ by tapping into the wisdom of the online world. This shift has helped throw open a range of business challenges that have long been the private preoccupation of a chosen few.

This approach of business to collaborate on sustainability and social innovation issues with outside organisations and individuals is not new; what is now different is how public companies are being about their business objectives and research projects, and the role that they see online open forums playing in helping to find their solutions. Unilever is not the only player here, as this April there have been a series of such launches such as ‘IdeasBrewery’ by Heineken’and Michael Bloomberg’s plan for New York to host a summer of sustainable crowdsourcing during a Greener, Greater Hackathon.

Earlier social innovation projects like Nike and Best Buy’s Green XChangeGE’s Ecomagination Challenge andDesso’s Circle of Architects all helped create the blueprint for businesses keen to capitalise on public problem solving. Brands like Unilever and GE are using social media to find social innovation in order to build results to clearly defined problems.

There are four important driving factors for this online, open-source social innovation approach. The first is that companies are aware that sustainability is no longer an option, but a must with the pressure to find bigger, better solutions to challenges identified by the business. Secondly, new online platforms provide a great way to identify and create stronger interactions with a global community of entrepreneurs, academics, not-for-profits, organisations and other businesses. The third is that there is a need, particularly for brand-led companies, to work with consumers to seek solutions to climate change and declining resources because when it comes to measuring a business’s total environmental impacts, consumers are switched on and it impacts on the fourth and final factor: a business’s brand reputation.

The new digital platforms are not self-contained online initiatives driven by corporate social responsibility, but extensions of existing business functions driven by a competitive, commercial strategy to do well by doing good. This development is heading in a promising direction for businesses to be even more sustainable, and even if it is still too early to evaluate its real social innovation effectiveness, the fact that it is happening is already creating positive change and engagement.