Unilever wants you to reinvent sustainable living

Unilever Foundry, how it works
Unilever aims to put the "wisdom of the crowd" to work. A graphic from its website explains how.

These days, it’s unusual to find a large consumer products company that doesn’t have some sort of venture capital or startup-nurturing mechanism.

Unilever is no different: Over the past year, it has invested $6 million in Unilever Foundry, a program for finding potential partners that can “make sustainable living commonplace.”

Now, it’s looking for even more ideas through a crowdsourcing campaign unveiled at this week’s high-profile advertising schmooze-fest, Lions Innovation in Cannes, France.

So far, the larger Foundry program has worked with at least 30 companies, mainly those with digital marketing services that can help Unilever drive visibility for its five-year-old Sustainable Living Plan, said Karen Hamilton, global vice president for sustainability at Unilever.  

One example of a Foundry connection is a relationship with artificial intelligence expert DigitalGenius, which worked with Unilever’s Knorr brand to create a service called “Chef Wendy.” The idea is to suggest recipes that make use of food items already in a consumer’s pantry, addressing the thorny issue of food waste. “Over time, the software becomes more personalized,” she said.

Imagining the shower of the future

Among the challenges posed by the Foundry: As the California drought drags on, how can showers adapt to less or no water?

The goal of the new Foundry IDEAs campaign is to get even more people — both the general public and potential business partners — involved in suggesting viable solutions that map directly to some of Unilever’s ambitious sustainable business goals.

“We anticipate linking up with people who are budding entrepreneurs who have an idea, but who haven’t much taken it beyond that,” Hamilton said. “We might also connect with startups that might have a full-fledged solution. … We believe in the power of the crowd.”

The Foundry IDEAS site is launching with three “grand challenges,” all of which fall under the areas of sanitation, hygiene and nutrition:

1. How can we help 100 million people have access to basic toilet sanitation by 2020?

2. Invent the shower of the future, to be more luxurious and more sustainable.

3. How can we enable millions of mothers and daughters in Africa to embrace more nutritious cooking?

These topics were chosen based on input from the brands that will sponsor the winning ideas with services such as pilot project support, one-on-one mentoring and other incentives to bring the solutions to market.

To be frank, Unilever hasn’t yet determined how long individual challenges will run. It is appealing to more than 300 “key opinion formers” in the field of sustainability to encourage submissions and comments.

“This is very much an experiment,” Hamilton said. Ultimately, Unilever or a designated business partner will be involved with taking the “winning” ideas to scale. “We have failed if we haven’t co-created,” Hamilton said.

The online platform Unilever is creating took several months to design and build, in collaboration with a software company called Mindjet that has worked with the likes of Citi, Pfizer and UnitedHealth.

It recalls a similar crowdsourcing program run by design firm OpenIDEO; the main difference is that the OpenIDEO community plays a role in suggesting ideas. GE also regularly hosts innovation challenges across many of its business units, including its Ecomagination group.