Turning Empathy into Social Innovations with Tri-sector Collaborations


Business, government and the civil society now operate in an environment filled with resource constraints, growing mistrust and inequity.

Good Lab encourages tri-sector collaboration to solve complex social and environmental problems.

That is why Good Lab organized the two-day workshop for the seventh time.

Why tri-sector collaboration?

All around the world, there has been growing attention to tri-sector collaboration. It is needed in areas such as education, energy security, poverty eradication, and sustainable development.

Renowned political scientist Joseph Nye call leaders as ‘tri-sector athletes’ when they appreciate the needs, aspirations and incentives of their counterparts in the other sectors and can speak a common language with them.

Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas identify six unique and common attributes for tri-sector athletes:

  1. Balanced motivations: tri-sector athletes are able to reconcile public mission with financial needs and the desire to have influence and power in emergencies.
  2. Contextual intelligence: tri-sector athletes are able to understand an evolving environment and to capitalize on trends.
  3. Transferrable skills: tri-sector athletes can acquire the skills in the three sectors, apply them across boundaries with adaptation and build a common language.
  4. Integrated networks: tri-sector athletes leverage their networks to build their top teams, and convene from within their networks to address complex tri-sector issues.
  5. Prepared for unconventional solutions: tri-sector athletes are willing to take major and sometimes counter-intuitive deviations in the standard career path.
  6. Intellectual thread: tri-sector athletes can focus on a particular issue across all three sectors, able to see things from the administrative, legislative, business and community sides.

Why tri-sector workshop?

While we cannot expect leaders to take full-time roles in each sector, there are practical ways to nurture such an appreciation through cross-sector leadership education and training.

Good Lab finished the seventh tri-sector workshop last week. Around 40 participants from government, business and civil society attended.

Turning empathy into social innovation

In addition to talks on international and local social innovation cases and thought provoking presentations on active ageing possibilities and connecting businesses with social innovation, highlights of the workshop include reflections on empathy, and that social innovation does not come from sympathy, but empathy. Only when we understand, feel and share another person’s suffering, we can locate problems and think of new products and services that are empowering.

The workshop also arranged a short walking tour to Sham Shui Po, To Kwa Wan, and Sai Ying Poon to listen to people’s stories, explore hidden assets, and identify social problems. The tours inspired participants to further examine issues at hand and prototyped their new ideas on Day 2. Despite the short discussion time, some of the ideas generated were innovative, and the best idea

was to discover the potential of the homeless, and made use of their skills to run small businesses in the temporary market under Tung Chau Street flyover with the ultimate aim to re-build their self-confidence.

Participants’ feedback

Tri-sector collaboration begins with understanding how people feel and being empathetic about their needs.

Tri-sector leaders are more adept in connecting with people very different from them and are natural social innovation leaders. They understand the importance of collaboration and people empowerment, and realize that all big actions have to start small.

Our hope: the emergence of the Fourth Sector

What we hope is the birth of the Fourth Sector: a new collaborative ecosystem, blending the best aspects of the three existing sectors, and co-existing alongside them, but deliver innovative social outcomes, profitably and at scale.

We need hybrid organizations to eliminate homelessness, fight recidivism, produce renewable energy, and many more.

For example, there have been new ways of investment such as impact investing, and new forms of corporations such as Benefit Corporations.

Our tri-sector workshops will not revolutionize and transform Hong Kong immediately, but participants will recognize the importance of collaboration across sectors. They will be more open and see that social problems could be tackled with innovation (and even in a fun way) in their daily lives.


Gib Bulloch and Louise James.2014. The Convergence Continuum: towards a Fourth Sector in Global Development? Accenture.

global-is-asian. 2012. Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Issue 15, Oct-Dec 2012.



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