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As we enter 2021, thinking back to the past year of turmoil and transition, it is hard to think of any aspect of life which has not been impacted.  This is especially true for those who are living below the poverty line in our global communities and cities.  UNICEF’s Executive Director Henrietta Fore said, “…calling on the public and private sectors to reimagine and rebuild systems and economies that will benefit everyone, including the poorest and most vulnerable children and families. No one entity can do it alone, and we need global solidarity more than ever before to build back better.”   Global solidarity is the key, now more than ever, and that cannot happen without strong, connected leadership.

Leaders who are committed to strong partnerships is one area that holds the most hope as we knit communities, cities and even countries back together with the global international communities and heal the divisions that started as cracks, differences, disparities but were pulled apart by the challenges that epitomized 2020.  A 2019 study analyzing more than a quarter-century of global data on alliances found that partnerships have increased to the highest level since the turn of the century (Gomes-Casseres, 2020).  COVID-19 and new forms of technology have added fuel to this trend. With the combination of new technologies and rapid response to disruption decreasing barriers to collaboration, organizations are transcending boundaries and joining forces.

I had the opportunity to interview CEOs from various sectors, backgrounds, and cultures, for the 2020 study led by Leaders on Purpose.  We expected diverse responses to Covid-19.  However, amongst the diversity of perspectives, several common themes emerged. The overarching global challenge of COVID-19 and innovation in technology have played significant roles in shaping areas of shared concern and not only opportunities, but a clear desire for greater collaboration (Leaders on Purpose, 2020).

  1. Purpose-driven Partnerships

We often hear the proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far go together”.   2021 is giving us an opportunity to challenge that statement.  In a rapidly changing economy, we are seeing that it is actually difficult for organizations to go fast alone. Today, organizations need to find the right ecosystem of partners who are focused on a shared purpose in order to realize large-scale ambitions rapidly and fully. Technology is one key reason for this shift, and it is helping to create a new enabling environment for partnerships.

Dr. James Mwangi, the CEO of Equity Group Holdings, says, “Innovation is at the heart of everything we do, but innovation must be true to reality. We now have technology, entrepreneurship, and knowledge as the biggest drivers of the allocation of resources, and the bulk of the masses don’t have those resources.”

  1. Leveraging Tech and Social Innovations

In a world where most interactions with customers and employees must take place virtually, operating digitally is often the only way to stay in business. Organizations across sectors have been faced with the choice to go digital or go dark (Cohron, Cummings, and Yavar, 2020). This trend toward digitization is nothing new, but the pandemic has certainly accelerated the shift. As a result, technological innovation will play an expanding role in our collective futures and this will lead to new kinds of partnerships.

Innovation must be pulled by those whose lives they are meant to improve, rather than pushed for adoption by leadership.  Emerging technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) or mixed reality can significantly speed up the service and delivery of innovations within an organization, however principles such as “do no harm” and methodologies such as “human-centered design” are vital to purpose-driven multi-sectoral partnerships and governing models focused on promoting cultural progress and social equality (Roberson, 2020).

  1. Catalyzing and Inspiring Purpose

For collaboration to reach its full potential, participants must have a shared vision for the partnership’s outcome, an agreement on the problem, and an agreement on the best process for addressing the issue. As new precedents are being set for public-private partnerships, the sharing of resources and data need to ensure that data protection protocols are in place to safeguard everyone’s privacy and security. This is especially the case as individuals and societies increasingly have digital lives and as the lines between safety and security fade.  Our digital lives have created a trust deficit with information, misinformation and disinformation all vying for our attention at a scale that is unprecedented and unmanageable.  The most effective partnerships promote transparent communication, and we must learn to innovate trust to achieve the kind of information landscape that proposes positive outcomes. Purpose-driven leaders and partners carefully assess all roles, responsibilities, and governance to ensure that key values are aligned.  This difficult but essential groundwork ensures shared capacity, trust, and good governance.

  1. Agility in Collaboration

Agile approaches to collaboration and rapid innovation that have emerged during the last few months hold the potential to change the way organizations lead and partner in the long term. COVID-19 has dispelled any doubt about the extent of the world’s interconnected nature, demonstrating the need for equality and systemic change.  This year has revealed that the best solutions often lie in collaboration to build capacity and knowledge.

The world now needs new leadership as we face a colliding climate crisis, economic crisis, erosion of trust and with it a declination in multilateralism.  We must build back a different world as we apply the lessons from purpose-driven leaders who work together.

Dianne Dain
Dianne Dain
WHO Innovation team

Dianne Dain is passionate about innovation and leadership and currently is at WHO Innovation team. She was the founder of the UN Reboot Accelerator at the United Nations and Global Partnership Lead in creating the UN Technology Innovation Labs (UNTIL), both roles impacting thousands of youth innovators and entrepreneurs in multiple global locations.

Dianne is on the Advisory Board of the World Humanitarian Forum and Chairs their Innovation Fund. She is passionate about innovating women’s economic empowerment and was named an Honorary Professor at the Wise Center for Economic Justice at Glasgow Caledonia University. She has served as an advisor to the Prince’s Trust in the UK and mentor to the Oxford Said Business School and chaired the Women’s Council at Claremont
Graduate University.

A mother of four children, she was named the 75th National American Mother of the Year in 2010 and has received numerous awards for her work at the intersection of technology and humanitarian work.