Transformational change doesn't have to come from new ideas

The World Health Organisation estimates that 30% of prescriptive drugs in circulation in emerging economies are counterfeit. Imagine you live in the developing world, and you depend upon regular medicine to keep you healthy enough to feed your family. There is roughly a one in three chance that each pill you take is at best ineffective, and at worst dangerous. Other than swallow and hope for the best, what can you do? Nothing; or at least that was the case until social enterprise Sproxil came along.

Sproxil’s solution is as ingenious as it is simple: every medicine blister pack bears a small silver rectangle which can be scratched off to reveal a unique code. Text that code using a mobile phone to a special number, and within seconds you’re told whether the drug inside is genuine. Brilliant.

It has been said that there are no new ideas; there are only new ways of making them felt. Scratchcards have been used for years by mobile phone carriers as a secure means to sell “pay as you go” top-ups – and long before that for lottery tickets. Sproxil has simply applied a technology tried and tested by one industry to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem in another.

There’s a name for this: technological convergence.

As a society we have become remarkably good at specialisation: innovating within established industries, to raise the efficiency of the systems upon which we depend. A laser-like focus has enabled our best and brightest to increase crop yields, miles per gallon, processor speeds, and countless other measures beyond anything that seemed possible as little as a generation ago. But incremental improvements within current systems – however impressive they may be – are only going to take us so far if the systems themselves are not fit for purpose.

There is growing consensus that to address our biggest challenges – from resource depletion to poverty – our global food, transport, energy, and financial systems (to name but a few) need to be rethought. That means transformational rather than incremental change, which demands that we put specialisation to one side, look beyond our own areas of expertise, and examine what else is we can adapt and apply to do things differently. In short, we need to put our laser-like focus on hold in favour of something more akin to radar.

Thankfully, the signs are that “sustainable convergence” is starting to gain traction. Last week’s video for The Regeneration Project sees sustainable development pioneers such as John Elkington talk about the power of convergence and collaboration, and the recent VERGE London event brought leaders from business, academia and government together from across the energy, IT, building and transport sectors with a view to accelerating sustainable innovation.

I’ve seen a few business leaders roll their eyes recently in response to calls from sustainability practitioners to pursue “transformational change”. Yes, it’s a great idea, and we’re all for it in principle, but business realities mean incremental improvement is the only viable option. I’d challenge such leaders to ponder this: breakthrough solutions can arise from nothing more than looking at how a proven technology – or service, or business model, for that matter – might be applied in a completely different way. And this needn’t necessarily require huge investment, either in time or R&D.

The counterfeit drug market is estimated to be worth $200bn a year, and Sproxil could conceivably put a serious dent in that figure. What opportunities exist for your business to solve societal challenges, simply by looking at how to refocus something that has worked well elsewhere? Start thinking about “transformational change” like this, and maybe it’s not such a bitter pill to swallow after all.

This article first appeared on The Guardian website on June 6, 2012.