The 6 Books Driving Innovation in Sustainable Development

April 23, 2019 5 minute read

The 6 Books Driving Innovation in Sustainable Development

From the inspiring to the provocative, these books are changing the way the global development industry thinks about—and drives—social impact.

World Book and Copyright Day celebrates the freedom to read, write, publish, and access quality education. We'd like to introduce you to the books we think will help expand these freedoms worldwide. If ever there was a good time to catch up on your social impact reading, this is it. Whether you’re a sustainability manager looking to strengthen your corporation’s global supply chain, or a development professional working to advance global good, you’ll learn something that will change your perspective. Sometimes critical, often revelatory, the authors of these six books offer a big-picture view of economic and societal progress—and potential. What’s most clear? The only way we’ll get there is to reach across industries and interests, and work together.

6 Books Driving Innovation in Sustainable Development

1. Factfulness – Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

This book is such a compelling, important read that Bill Gates gave it away for free to students graduating from college in 2018. In it, the Rosling team aims to dispel common myths about the state of the world and give its readers better tools to assess global progress. From the get-go they grab your attention with a simple 13-question quiz to gauge your understanding of the state of the world, and spoiler alert: it’s a lot better than you think. The book is the culmination of Hans’ life’s work, which has been continued by his son and daughter-in-law through the Gapminder Foundation. It employs clean and simple visualizations of compelling data to emphasize the changing quality of life globally.

The book offers a new way to frame our view of the world—yes, things can be bad, but they are getting better, a lot better. It also dispels the false dichotomies of development and shows us a better way to understand inequality. Yes, there may be poorer countries and richer countries but in every country there is a spectrum of socioeconomic status that runs from the very poor to the very rich. Out with the days of “helping people in Africa” and in with the days of enabling level two income households in Nigeria to reach level three income through proven market-based public health interventions.

2. Lean Impact – Ann Mei Chang

If we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Accord, then the next decade will need to be the decade of the social entrepreneur. If that’s going to happen, Lean Impact will be the playbook that guides the budding social entrepreneur to innovative breakthroughs. Building on her previous experience at the USAID Global Development Lab and in Silicon Valley, Chang captures and translates the concepts that Eric Reis first made famous through the Lean Start-Up method—bootstrapping innovation through iteration to test and refine a start-up’s growth and value hypotheses—and reframes them for the social innovator through the additional lens of impact.

At Resonance, we are deeply proud to be involved with social innovation at USAID. We’re also using some of the concepts laid out in Lean Impact to help nonprofits and social enterprises around the world unlock the potential of their best ideas, and accelerate their impact.

3. Social Value Investing – Howard W. Buffett and William B. Eimicke

To understand why this book (warning: one could call it a textbook) makes the list, you have to also have the subtitle: A Management Framework for Effective Partnerships. This book by two professors at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs—one of whom happens to be the grandson of a modern-day oracle—reframes the concepts of value investing (which made said oracle one of the wealthiest people alive) with an eye toward the public sphere and social betterment.

With its alternating chapters laying out a case study then exploring the piece of the framework academically, the book provides clear guidance on how to develop a plan of attack to solve wicked problems. Its management framework helps demonstrate how cross sector partnerships can be built in a sustainable way to thrive and deliver the impact that only a committed coalition of private and public partners working together can bring.

4. The Wizard and The Prophet – Charles Mann

In order to have a clear vision for how to move forward toward a sustainable future, it’s important to revisit the past and remember the lessons of previous movements. As such, Charles Mann’s account of the lives and work of two titans whose thinking underpins much of modern natural resource management and agriculture thought. The Prophet is William Vogt, whose book the Road to Survival in the 1940s served as a prototype for the environmental movement, introducing concepts such as carrying capacity.  Vogt’s work previewed much better-known work such as Silent Spring in the ‘60s and the Population Bomb in the ‘70s. Vogt’s ideas underpin much of Resonance’s cutting-edge work in fisheries conservation. The Wizard is Norman Borlaug, who you may know as the architect of the Green Revolution in India in the ‘60s, which revolutionized agriculture productivity in much of the developing world. Borlaug’s work and ideas form the basis of much of our work in agricultural value chains.

The book lays out these stories so that readers can explore the tension between these two competing schools of thought and how ultimately both may be right and wrong.  For those with any interest in the intellectual foundations of the modern environmental movement and agricultural development, it’s a captivating read.

5. The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty – Clayton M. Christensen, Efosa Ojomo, and Karen Dillon

Clayton Christensen is the godfather of innovation management theory and some of his earlier works, such as The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, have been hailed as game changers for business leaders looking to understand and harness the potential of disruptive innovation. In this book, he teams up with Efosa Ojomo and Karen Dillon to apply innovation best practices to global economic development, and identify the best strategies for nations to make progress along the development continuum.

They argue convincingly of the power of market-creating innovations as the most effective strategy for economic development, helping to pull in needed infrastructure and regulation rather than push it out without a clear value proposition. They use both current examples from frontier markets as well as examples from the story of America’s development to lay out the catalyzing effect of market-creating innovation, particularly when innovators home in on opportunities in impoverished areas. Targeting people who are traditionally overlooked as “non-consumptive” can spark a chain reaction that creates jobs, infrastructure, and institutions.

6. Winners Take All – Anand Giridharadas

Last but certainly not least is a book that takes direct aim at many of the values, strategies, and goals we strive for at Resonance. Giridharadas lays out a critical view of the foundations and wealthy investors attempting to develop “win-win” innovations to help solve the toughest challenges of the 21st century. This book is an uncomfortable read for those of us working in impact investing and corporate social responsibility industries. But ultimately, the takeaway isn’t that business cannot solve our problems. It’s that business cannot solve our problems alone. A brilliant invention that returns to the founder and early investors a 10X return will not be a silver bullet—especially if it contributes to maintaining the deep inequality present in our current economy.

It will take innovative, cross-sector collaboration and partnerships to solve these problems. Government policy and regulation will be a key component. New legal structures, such as the benefit corporation, will be needed to create the economic structure for truly sustainable businesses to thrive in the 21st century. Almost as interesting as the book itself has been the reaction to it in impact investing and social enterprise circles, such as a provocative piece by BALLE’s Rodney Foxworth asking investors to “do good by giving up more.”

At Resonance we’re very excited to be integrating the insights from these books into the work we do with partners on all sides of the development industry. Have more book recommendations for us? Drop us a line. And happy reading!

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If you are a corporate leader and would like to be a part of a discussion about these and other issues in the presidential transition, contact Resonance Strategic Partnerships Manager, Seth Olson.