Five Ways Sustainable Innovation is Different from Normal Innovation

Today's innovation rules were forged in a world that paid little attention to sustainability, where profit was separate from this higher purpose. Yet the disruptive nature of sustainability must surely change the way we innovate too. We must continue to reinvent our innovation processes to ensure it is fit for a changing world, in the five ways highlighted here.

Even across very different industries, the way companies innovate often has striking similarities. The diverse audiences attending innovation conferences or active on innovation management sites (like this one) lay testament to this. Though the challenges and solutions differ greatly between chemicals, banking, or fast-moving consumer goods sectors, the way they innovate can follow common rules and processes.

Against this backdrop, innovation is becoming more important than ever to sustainability. “Moving business to a sustainable growth model will be disruptive,” noted the recent Business and Sustainable Development Commission’s Better Business, Better World report. “Business as usual will not achieve this market transformation.” Clearly sustainability will disrupt many aspects of today’s business, not least the way we innovate. Just how does this play out against today’s innovation rules?

Innovation as Unusual

This article looks at the practicalities of this new form of sustainable innovation, asking if today’s innovation processes are fit to serve the needs of a sustainable future. It presents five fundamental differences between ‘normal’ and ‘sustainable’ innovation, summarised below, and then unpacked in more detail:

Normal Innovation vs Sustainable Innovation
Balances Performance, Cost, Tech, Cool + Environmental and Social Factors
System = Source > Make > Sell > Use + Extract > Distribute > End-of-Life
Seeks Customer & Consumer Insights + Stakeholder Insights
Inspiration from Technology & Culture + Inspired by Nature
Serves Commercial Goals + Societal Goals

Five Differences with Sustainable Innovation

Sustainability Factors are Balanced with Performance, Cost, Technology and Desirability: traditionally innovation balances priorities like performance, cost, technology and attractiveness to produce a better solution for customers and business. Sustainable innovation also does this, but adds social and environmental factors too.

Performance + Innovation + Sustainability have become the new mantra for Nike’s future portfolio, seeing them add this latter pillar as a driver for new products. Its Flyknit innovation manages to create cool, high-performance trainers that are lighter in weight, use less material, and integrate a novel manufacturing technique that dramatically cuts manufacturing waste. Innovators are known to thrive on constraints and sustainability is re-drawing the traditional boundaries of innovation.

Insights come from Stakeholders, as well as Customers and Consumers: human-centered, user-focussed, customer-centric, people-driven – amongst our biggest recent innovation trends has been its re-orientation around ‘real’ customers’ and consumers’ needs. We have developed ever more sophisticated research techniques to glean insights (ethnography, focus groups, co-creation, video diaries, etc.) that fuel innovations with primary user benefits.

Sustainable innovation looks for insights from stakeholders as well, which is often where sustainability impacts are most felt – through sourcing practices in the supply chain, or when products become waste at their end-of-life. The recently launched Circular Design guide captures this well, calling for design innovation to move beyond ‘human-centered’ processes to create value for all actors across the product system. Sustainability innovators look wider for their insights, delivering benefits to a broader set of stakeholders than consumers and customers alone.

A Wider Systems View is Adopted: Innovators traditionally design for systems to source, produce, sell, and use their products or services, making them cheaper to make, easier to sell, or better to use. Sustainable innovation looks further up- and downstream to a wider set of lifecycle stages – considering resource extraction, distribution, and waste and disposal issues too. Many now even call for an overhaul of this linear model to become more cyclical and circular, using concepts like cradle-to-cradle or circular economy thinking. However this is framed, the innovation system widens when innovating for sustainability.

Toast Ale is a new beer brewed from surplus bread that would otherwise go to waste. Collected from bakeries, delis, and sandwich makers close to the brewery, breadcrumbs are used as an essential ingredient for brewing the beer. So otherwise wasted bread – the UK’s most wasted food – can be sourced for free or at minimum price to become the ingredient for a new product. Sustainability innovators design for a wider system than just make, use, dispose.

Inspiration comes from Nature as well as Technology and Culture: the past century has seen innovation shaped by technological breakthroughs (new manufacturing techniques, digital technology, material innovation) or by new social-cultural developments (modernism, consumerism, 60s counterculture, etc). Today, natural systems are becoming an equally valuable source of inspiration, via concepts like biomimicry, cradle-to-cradle, ecological design, industrial ecology, and closed loop manufacturing – all using nature as their model, measure, and mentor.

The Human Spaces platform promotes Biophilic Design, showing how access to plants, daylight, and natural materials in buildings can lead to greater productivity, better learning, and lower absenteeism. Technological and social-cultural developments will continue to drive innovation but the world changing innovators of tomorrow will look to nature for inspiration too.

Serves Sustainable Development Goals in addition to Commercial Ones: “Innovation is the central issue in economic prosperity,” said Michael Porter, articulating its dominant role in delivering revenue generation and competitive advantage. Yet a new innovation purpose is emerging today, which reorients it towards the needs and benefits to society.

Social innovation, described simply as ‘innovation that serves the public good’, is receiving greater attention even from the corporate world. Michael Porter himself even coining the term ‘Creating Shared Value’ to promote business innovation that services a social and environmental as well as the economic bottom line. Sustainable innovation serves sustainable development goals, helping create shared value, along with delivering commercial value creation.

By Chris Sherwin

About the author

Chris Sherwin is the Director at Reboot Innovation, a creative consultancy on a mission to change what and how we innovate – for a better world. We fuse world-changing innovation, marketing and design with cutting-edge sustainability and ethical business. We are the sustainable innovation partner to brands and innovators who want to practically design a green, fair and prosperous world.

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