BSR Conference 2013

The Power of Networks

November 5-8 / San Francisco

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Leadership in Action: In Conversation with Nike and USAID

Leadership in Action Session / November 5, 2013


  • Santiago Gowland, General Manager, Systems Innovation, Sustainable Business and Innovation, NIKE, INC.
  • David Ferguson, Deputy Director, Office of Science and Technology, U.S. Agency for International Development
  • Joe Sellwood, Director, South America, BSR (Moderator)


  • LAUNCH, a collaboration between Nike, USAID, and the U.S. State Department, was developed as a platform to identify and scale innovations that can change the world by addressing systemic barriers and harnessing new collaborations and partnerships.

  • Innovators and businesses need to move past an incremental mindset and instead embrace an innovation strategy aimed at changing entire systems.

  • Successful collaboration depends on articulating a shared vision and defining a long-term strategy for engagement. Persistence and trust-building are also essential to create momentum behind a partnership.

Memorable Quotes

“How can we find precompetitive innovation? We need to join forces and align our incentives in order to address those market barriers that stop breakthrough innovations from going to scale.” —Santiago Gowland, Nike, Inc.

“We probably underestimate the power that we have; let’s not shoot too low.” —David Ferguson, U.S. Agency for International Development

“We understand that big challenges cannot be solved by one company, government, or organization alone. The innovations required to positively impact our future won’t come from a single source. Collaboration is essential.” —David Ferguson, U.S. Agency for International Development


Sellwood opened the session by describing the need for systems-level innovation and collaboration to address the global challenges facing our world.

Ferguson and Gowland then described LAUNCH, a partnership between NASA, USAID, the U.S. State Department, and Nike, kicked off in 2010 to identify and scale breakthrough sustainability innovations. In three years, LAUNCH has successfully supported 39 innovations.

The speakers described how limits such as resource constraints force us to innovate, and Gowland described our planetary limits as the biggest challenges of the 21st century. As a result, sustainability becomes a filter through which we create disruptive innovation.

Gowland added that, despite facing unprecedented risks—to climate, energy, waste, and water—we’re also facing unprecedented opportunities in crowdsourcing, impact investing, science, and technology. It is difficult to scale up current sustainability solutions, and innovators and businesses need to move past an incremental mindset and instead embrace an innovation strategy aimed at changing entire systems.

To bring these innovations to scale, the panelists listed as critical elements a supportive regulatory framework, proper incentives, and market opportunities. They also described some of the barriers to scaling: the risks posed by being first adopters, need for investments across the entire supply chain, startup costs, and the challenge of getting the levels of data and transparency needed to bring these solutions to scale.

LAUNCH addresses these systemic barriers by providing new ways to collaborate at a precompetitive level. Once LAUNCH identifies and understands the barriers to scaling solutions, they leverage the expertise, comparative advantage, and resources of diverse partners to influence and transform relevant parts of the system. For example, the State Department brings its convening power, Nike brings its deep understanding of supply chains and materials, and NASA provides critical technical expertise.

The panelists then described the current LAUNCH challenge, which focuses on the fabric-manufacturing process—a process that has substantial social, economic, and environmental impacts. The garment sector employs 400 million people worldwide, the majority being women in developing countries, and by 2015, the global apparel industry is expected to produce more than 400 billion square meters of fabric each year. One example of a LAUNCH-developed innovation is DyeCoo, a Dutch company that created a system to completely eliminate water from the dyeing process while also reducing the amount of energy used.

Sellwood asked about the greatest potential for the development agenda, and Ferguson responded that the biggest opportunity for USAID is to find, support, and accelerate breakthrough solutions for impact, to “change the game” by moving beyond the traditional development approaches of capacity-building and fixing existing systems. When asked how public-private partnerships can address challenges, Ferguson said that creating networks among community members is essential. Change, especially in the developing world, happens at a local level.

Next, Sellwood asked Gowland about differences between innovating in silos and collaboratively. Gowland explained that, although Nike has long focused on innovation, systems-level change requires a new level of expertise, new business models, identifying system barriers, scenario planning, collective action, and a shared vision. Gowland also stressed that companies can take two approaches to finding solutions: they can either manage risks and compliance or they can move into the offense and disrupt the systems.

During the Q&A session, one participant asked how companies can bring solutions to scale within their organizations. Gowland stressed the importance of a “ruthless focus on the business case” as well as clearly articulating strategies in terms that will get support from the executive team. For Ferguson, leadership is critical, as is a coalition of people that believe in the approach.

Another participant asked how LAUNCH projects define and measure success. For Gowland, success is a company’s ability to create market conditions that support sustainable growth. For measurement, each market barrier that is overcome will have its own set of key performance indicators (KPIs). He gave worker well-being as an example and identified indicators related to health, absenteeism, and productivity as possible KPIs.

Thank You Sponsors

Presenting Sponsor

Target Corporation logo

Premium Sponsor

GE logo

Executive Sponsor

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Convening Media Sponsor

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Participating Sponsors
Renewable Energy and Carbon Reduction Sponsor

Bonneville Environmental Foundation logo

Contributing Sponsors
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Marketing and Media Sponsors