Digital: Catalyst and enabler of global change

How can digital help address some of the world’s most challenging problems? Take, for example, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These were adopted by all UN countries to set an agenda that seeks to eradicate poverty, protect the planet and deliver prosperity for all. SDG 17 explicitly calls for partnership to achieve those goals. It’s clear that given the ambition of the wider SDGs, partnership and collaboration will have to be a key factor in the drive towards them.

Sharing perspectives, information and technology is at the heart of the digital economy. Operating across the traditional demarcations between geographies and sectors fosters open innovation as new ideas and points of view intersect and cross-fertilize. It’s the essence of what Accenture calls The Platform Economy, in which whole new areas of value are created by the ability that digital platforms provide, in an increasingly interconnected world, for different players to collaborate and innovate.

A clear demonstration of this kind of digital collaboration is the Global Change Award, started by H&M Foundation, working alongside Accenture and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. The Global Change Award takes on one of the biggest challenges facing today’s fashion industry: How to meet a growing population’s demand for fashion, while improving its impact on the environment. By catalyzing early innovations that can accelerate fashion’s shift from a linear, disposable business to a creatively self-sustaining circular industry, the aim of the Global Change Award is to protect the planet and improve living conditions.

Launched in 2015, the first year of Global Change Award received almost 3000 applications, from 112 different countries. That global response was only possible because applications were promoted and received via digital channels. Five winning ideas were selected as having the greatest potential to make a real difference to the industry’s sustainability. Those selected are given access to a one-year innovation accelerator provided by the partners. The accelerator is designed to maximize the innovations’ impact on a whole industry. It’s a truly global network and the teams are spread across several regions and represent several time zones. Because the Accelerator is digitally enabled, the teams have been able to connect and collaborate successfully not only with each other, but also with coaches and leading experts from all over Accenture’s global practice.

But while five ideas were selected, in one sense every application should be thought of as a winner. The information, ideas and insights that each offers have created a new pool of data and knowledge that can be used to guide further development, and mined for insights and trends that will help shape the future sustainability of the industry. By enabling individuals, small organizations and multinational business and NGOs to freely exchange information, digital "levels the playing field" and connects people and organizations that would never previously have found one another. One of the winners even uses digital to solve a big industry challenge, waste, by creating a digital marketplace for textile leftovers. Digital serves, therefore, as both an enabler of change and as its catalyst.

The unique partnerships that stand behind the Global Change Award offer a verifiable proof of concept that cross-sector collaboration works as driver for sustainable innovation. The various partners contribute: leading expertise and thought leadership within the circular economy and innovation; academic research and concepts around innovation; industry insight as well as funding and networks.

By combining the strengths of each partner, and harnessing digital to make global open innovation possible, the Global Change Award has managed to identify thousands of concrete ideas from all over the world to help make the fashion industry more sustainable. Its lessons should serve as a clear pointer to a way ahead powered by digital for addressing the significant challenges facing our planet.