Muhammad Yunus: I want a world of social fiction

The world must embrace “social fiction” to trigger social innovation, just as science fiction has created ideas later exploited by scientists, according to Nobel prize laureate Muhammad Yunus.

“Everything always starts with imagination,” he said, speaking at the launch on Wednesday of the Yunus Social Business Unusual Pioneers programme, which will support a cohort of corporate social intrapreneurs.

“Science fiction serves imagination, because nothing moves without imagination,” the microfinance pioneer explained.

“Science fiction took us to the moon even before we had a rocket or anything… But science followed it up, and finally we landed on the moon… Why aren’t we doing social fiction?” 

Thinking of society in a fictional, “completely unimaginable” way would give birth to ideas that even entrepreneurs had not yet thought of, he said. “Once we start doing this, it puts a mark on our mind, and gradually we move in that direction.”


Intrapreneurship needs ‘outrageous ideas’

Social intrapreneurs are corporate employees who develop solutions to social and environmental problems by taking on an entrepreneurial role to create social businesses in partnership with their companies.

The Unusual Pioneers programme supports selected social intrapreneurs through training, peer-to-peer exchange and mentoring to scale their initiatives with the help of partners including Acumen, Impact Hub, the UNDP’s Business Call to Action and others.

As a word of advice to the intrapreneurs joining the programme, Yunus shared his experience of creating social businesses with big corporates.

Be “outrageously bold...the more ridiculous an idea, the more fascinating it will be

He recalled the beginnings of a partnership with food and drinks multinational Danone in the 2000s to build a social business which sells fortified yogurts for children at risk of malnutrition in Bangladesh. The chairman of the company was “desperate” to meet him, Yunus said, although he personally didn't know anything about Danone. “We invited Danone to Bangladesh [for them to] understand what a social business is and they said yes, we want it. I was worried they had no idea what a social business was.”

Yunus Social Business – co-founded by Yunus in 2011 to fund and co-create social businesses – had an important rule when working with large companies, he said: it always required them to set up a new entity, giving Yunus Social Business and the corporation equal control over the business. The social principles should always be incorporated into the new company’s bylaws as a safeguard, Yunus said: “We make sure that [the social business] is legally fortified, and we make sure that [corporate partners] are compliant.”

But in parallel with this strict legal structure, Yunus also told intrapreneurs on the call to be “outrageously bold” in their thinking: “the more ridiculous an idea, the more fascinating it will be”. 



‘Suicidal’ humanity

The economic fallout of  the pandemic created a “tremendous opportunity”, Yunus said. “When the machine is stopped it is time to redesign it… People will forget very soon. Right now, this is the time to work on it.”

The redesign should focus on creating a world of “three zeros”: net-zero carbon emissions, zero wealth concentration and zero unemployment. 

When the machine is stopped it is time to redesign it

He said humanity was at a “suicidal” level, as it overexploited natural resources essential to its survival, and that the process needed to be reversed. Wealth concentration was “extreme”, with 99% of the world’s wealth being held in the hands of 1% of the population, and the income gap was widening at a worrying pace, he said. Zero unemployment could be achieved by “unleashing the energy of entrepreneurship”. 

Unusual Pioneers was launched in January by Yunus Social Business together with the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and the Porticus Foundation. The first cohort of 14 social intrapreneurs will start the programme in August.


Above: Muhammad Yunus speaking at the University of Salford in 2013

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