After working on public-private partnerships (PPPs) for the better part of the last seven years, I’m pleased and surprised to see that we’re moving into a new phase, which I’ll call PPP 3.0. Pleased, because of the almost limitless potential of the new paradigm. Surprised, because it seems like only yesterday that 2.0 was released.

First, a brief word about PPP versions 1.0 and 2.0.

The first “version” of public-private partnerships was more or less a modern twist on classic corporate philanthropy and grew out of the American model made famous by the Carnegie’s and Rockerfeller’s of this world: corporations, like individuals, were expected to support good causes.

At the turn of (this) century, with the internet taking transparency to new levels, corporations made more effort to show that they were “doing well, by doing good”. This phase was characterized by large bi-lateral brand-partnerships between well-known companies and causes (e.g. ING Bank and UNICEF). To be sure, there were variations within the theme: some companies gave cash, some in-kind, but at the end of day they did not expect to see a return on their “investment”.

Version 2.0 married the good cause to the bottom line and PPPs moved from the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to the marketing department. Inspired by the hype generated by PPP 1.0, companies and charities started to explore real win-win’s. Accounting departments stop rolling their eyes and rubbing their hands as companies saw that they could actually make some money while addressing social issues.

It’s hard to say exactly when PPP 2.0 was released in beta form, but its hay-day was in the mid nineties. This version is perhaps most memorably epitomized by Hindustan Lever (Unilever)/WHO/Indian government partnership on hygiene and rural health education ( driving sales of Lifeboy brand soap), which features prominently in C.K. Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (the “PPP 2.0 for Dummies” for many a CSR-practicioner – absolutely no disrespect intended).

And now to the latest release. PPP 3.0, as I see it, is not driven by guilt or greed. It occurs at the intersection of corporate and public needs. Specifically, it arises when corporations, governments and/or NGOs realize that they are facing overarching issues that have a direct impact on their primary processes, but cannot be addressed through traditional internal or external mechanisms. Where PPP 2.0 united good deeds with good profits, 3.0 unites practical needs with practical solutions.

The environment and health are typical 3.0 issues, where combining problem-solving capacity and resources is a logical response and not just a pet project. Reducing emissions and fighting AIDS  are everybody’s problem, but no one organization’s sole responsibility.

Take the case of healthcare and supply chains. Public health experts have known supply chains and transport routes are an important vector of disease transmission since at least the 14th century when a cargo ship docked in Marseille and brought the black plague to Europe from China. On the other hand, transport companies in southern Africa, where the working life-expectancy of long-haul truckers had dropped to as low as five years by some calculations, know the devastating impact HIV, malaria and other diseases all too well. The scope of the problem deterred many on both sides from mounting a response. But by creating a joint platform like North Star, they have been able to combine their skills and (financial) resources to develop an effective and affordable answer that is having a measurable impact.

As North Star grows and learns, we are benefiting from other aspects that distinguish PPP 3.0 from its predecessors. Whereas the previous approaches to PPPs tended to create partnerships with rigid timelines (usually five years), structures (Memoranda of Understanding), and memberships (two to five partners), PPP 3.0 is characterized by more fluid arrangements. For example, more than 60 partners work together through North Star.  Each partner contributes according to their own (perceived) interest and capacity. Their contributions can be one-off, in-kind, country-specific or multi-year, multi-country and international. North Star provides a platform to combine and channel the various efforts into a clearly defined result. And while some organizations are happy to walk away after their initial engagement, more are coming back and seeing how they can get more out of the programme.

As with such developments, PPP 3.0’s recent growth spurt has been fuelled by a combination of factors. However, the ever-increasing connectivity driven by internet-based communications is surely one of the most important.

As social media continues to gain traction among businesses and government alike, the office cubicle is being transformed from a cage into a portal. Through that portal trouble shooters from all walks of life are connecting with a kindred spirits around the world. Problem solving capacity and creativity are expanding exponentially.

It is this almost limitless access to new ideas and resources that make me think we’ll be working with PPP 3.0 for some time to come. To be clear, this is a whole new release and not just a minor bug fixes and tweaks. Like all major systems upgrades companies, governments, NGOs and other bodies need to take it seriously and to plan it meticulously. For those that are prepared to take the plunge a whole new universe of possibilities awaits!

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