In today’s cities, advances in technology are redefining urban mobility. The competition to be the dominant player in the transportation industry is fierce. A cohort of tech titans and automobile companies are vying to develop the platforms that will power future infrastructure and change how residents get around. Look no further than the spat between Waymo, Google’s former self-driving car project, and Uber over alleged intellectual property theft.

Despite the cut-throat competition, unique partnerships have been forged between groups that had not, until recently, worked collaboratively toward common interests. These joint ventures are not just between competing private firms, but public and nonprofit entities as well—city governments specifically. At the heart of these partnerships is the principle that companies can “do well while doing good.” In other words, that they can pursue profitability while producing public benefit.

This unprecedented dynamic is exemplified in the recently announced public-private partnership between Ford, ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft, the nonprofit organization SharedStreets, and more than 30 cities worldwide. Through the partnership, business and government will focus on rethinking the future of transportation through the use of shared data.

Uber, Lyft, and SharedStreets will work in tandem to share anonymized data on curbside pick-ups and drop-offs to help public officials see where mobility services are in high demand. Another important focus, for Uber specifically, is to dive into the data to spot speeding trends among drivers.

Sustainable Business Strategy

The partnership is a great illustration of a cooperative driven by corporate social responsibility, as well as a commitment to produce benefits for stakeholders beyond those with a financial interest in these firms’ success.

But What Is Corporate Social Responsibility Exactly?

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) refers to a business model whereby for-profit companies deliberately seek ways of producing social benefits while pursuing institutional goals, like growth and maximizing shareholder value. Yet, how companies realize their aims for CSR—and the underlying reason for their interest in CSR—can take many different forms.

The Ford/Uber/Lyft partnership approaches social responsibility from the unique angle that information-sharing between groups that would otherwise be competitive can serve a greater purpose without compromising profitability.

      RelatedWhat Does “Sustainability” Mean in Business?

It is a creative and concerted engagement of companies fiercely competing in an industry that is rapidly evolving: autonomous vehicles and mobility services. At the heart of this cross-sector relationship is a strong and mutual interest in ensuring safe and efficient urban transportation networks as autonomous vehicles gain traction. Though it remains to be seen what public impact the initiative will have, the partnership illustrates how even companies that are sparring for market share recognize the importance of coordination and public engagement for the greater good.

Principles That Come Before Market Competition

The partnership touches on a prominent theme in the online course Sustainable Business Strategy, taught by Harvard Business School Professor Rebecca Henderson. As illustrated through the example of Unilever’s push for sustainable palm oil as an industry standard—a business case explored in Henderson’s course—there are rules and practices opposing firms can adopt that can be considered “pre-competitive,” or “off the table,” in matters of competitive business.

Unilever recognized it would face a cost disadvantage if it pursued sustainable palm oil alone. Buy-in and mutual understanding from Unilever’s competitors on the importance of sustainability was critical. A similar understanding coalesced between Ford, Uber, and Lyft in their partnership with SharedStreets and municipalities: one based on a mutual recognition of the universal value of safe and frictionless urban transportation networks for all stakeholders. Reducing carbon emissions, improving mobility in urban areas, and making streets safer for all residents are goals that, to the firms partnering with SharedStreets, are pre-competitive.

Sustainable Business Strategy asks learners whether purpose-driven firms can help solve the greatest problems of our time and be the catalysts for a sustainable society. As Henderson shares, this reality hinges on companies working in unison to establish a reinforcing cycle, whereby operating with the purpose of social benefit becomes a comparative advantage. As Ford, Uber, Lyft, and its nonprofit and public partners work toward a shared vision for a safe and efficient future with autonomous vehicles, it will surely be to the detriment of their competitors to dismiss the importance of putting social responsibility above beating the opposition.

Are you interested in learning more about pre-competitive practices or the benefits of corporate social responsibility? Explore our online course Sustainable Business Strategy to learn how you can make a difference.

Matt Blackbourn

About the Author

Matt Blackbourn is a member of the Harvard Business School Online Course Delivery Team and is currently working on developing HBS Online’s first leadership course. Before coming to HBS Online, Matt was a Research & Policy Associate at a local think tank where he led projects on transit, public higher education, and the sharing economy. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Tulane University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. In his spare time, Matt enjoys traveling, writing, and volunteering for local nonprofits.