When you think of the word innovation, what comes to mind? Better, faster, technology, robots…

And what about entrepreneurship? Risk, bold, opportunity, unicorns…

While all these ring true, we often forget the most important factor of success for each: the problem solving itself.

To create a corporate culture of innovation and entrepreneurship that extends into the world community, we must begin embracing and nurturing the natural problem solver in all of us.

It is about making employees, customers, and partners believe that solutions are within reach; and beyond this, that we have the power to effect change that can address – and in many cases solve – our world’s largest challenges.

At Cisco, we believe everyone has the potential to be a global problem solver; someone who innovates as a technologist, acts as a social change agent, and embodies an entrepreneurial mindset to combat issues such as the skills gap, climate change, and economic inequality.

Yet, without a diverse culture, environment and array of opportunities to support effective problem solving, our belief becomes ideas, more than action; problems, more than solving.

How can we start to foster global problem solving and build a culture of impactful innovation that can change the world?

Instill the power of continuous learning.

Thinking way back to Cisco’s early days, this environment of problem solving started with the company’s focus on skill-building and hands-on, experiential learning that extended out into the community with the creation of Cisco Networking Academy.

Today, Cisco Networking Academy is our longest and largest running corporate social responsibility program where students are developing the skills to succeed in the digital job market, but also learning they can apply this talent to change the world for the better. Through hackathons and competitions, the program is building design thinking and social awareness into the DNA of students.

To reach the next generation of problem solvers in middle school, we’ve created GPS: The Series, an animated web series that teaches the fundamentals of entrepreneurship to tackle social and environmental issues, both global and local. Students can then apply these learnings to ideate IoT-based solutions in their own communities.

Cisco’s Global Problem Solvers: The Series builds problem-solving skills while opening the eyes of youth to the potential of innovation for social good.

Provide opportunities to problem-solve, both large and small.

We empower employees to tackle challenges of all sizes through activities like our Innovate Everywhere Challenge. While this challenge doesn’t have a prerequisite that the solution have a social or environmental impact, more than half of the six finalists chosen have ideas that positively impact people’s lives.

Externally, Cisco is discovering and funding tomorrow’s social entrepreneurs through innovation challenges such as Cisco’s Global Problem Solver Challenge and the Cisco Innovation Challenge at Rice University’s Business Plan Competition. Winners have included Neopenda, who created a small wearable device that monitors the vital signs of critically ill newborns in low-resource hospitals, and Project Vive’s Voz Box, a patented speech-generating device (SGD) leveraging digitization to give a voice to the voiceless.

Founded by two Columbia University graduates, Neopenda’s low-cost wearable sensor improves vital care for newborns in resource-constrained hospitals.

Align purpose and profit.

At Cisco, about 90 percent of product emissions occur during product use, which is why we focus on designing our products to be increasingly powerful and cutting-edge, coupled with industry-leading energy efficiency. We have incorporated a Design for Environment (DfE) approach into our design processes and embrace a circular economy strategy to challenge how we think of product design and life-cycle management, increasing value while maximizing efficiencies and cutting waste.

Combine problem-solving and strongest assets for greatest impact.

And lastly, sometimes problem solving comes in the form of being able to identify, assess and fund impactful opportunities that empower others to problem solve.

Cisco applies a venture capital-like approach to invest in and then scale tomorrow’s most promising early-stage technology solutions. Over the years, we have worked with thousands of nonprofit organizations to accelerate our impact and since 2016, have positively impacted 232 million people through our investments.

A never-ending journey.

At the heart of any large business is innovation – it is why most, if not all companies, are here today. However, impactful innovation has to be more than a mindset. It has to be continuously set in motion and fostered in a genuine environment that supports failure, perseverance, and the relentless pursuit of the right problem to solve.

As humans, we are born problem solvers; and some are better than others, like any innate skill. And like any skill that is left unpracticed, we lose that skill.

By creating whole experiences for employees – and stakeholders – to test and grow their inner problem solver, we can build this skill, and accelerate solutions that create positive change for business, society and individuals, themselves.



Mary de Wysocki

SVP & Chief Sustainability Officer

Chief Sustainability Office