Innovation and Sustainability

Of increasing relevance in the innovation agenda is the concern being expressed about sustainability. Issues here include.

1) Global warming and the threats posed by climate change.
2) Environmental pollution and the pressure towards greener products and services.
3) Population growth and distribution with accompanying problems of urban concentration.
4) Declining availability of energy and pressure to find renewable and alternative resources.
5) Health and related issues of access to basic standards of care, clean, water, simple public hygiene etc.

Such concerns are too new there was, for example an extensive debate during the 1970s around the limits to growth in which a variety of doomsday scenarios were predicted. Although enormously relevant the resolution of such concerns owed much to an underlying innovation process which helped deal with some of the more urgent problems and opened up new possible directions to ameliorate others. In similar fashion the sustainability agenda today poses challenges but also opens up significant innovation opportunities. We can see these distributed across our range of innovation types, for example involving.

1) New or more sustainable products and services such as fuel cells, solar power systems, biodegradable waste, organic foods, low impact transportation systems etc
2) New or more sustainable processes such as low energy processing, minimal impact mining operations, electronic rather than physical transaction processing etc.
3) New or extended markets built on exploiting a growing concern with sustainability issues – for example clean and green food stuffs , furniture made with Forestry Stewardship Council Certification, eco-tourism etc.
4) New business models re-framing existing arrangements to emphasize sustainability – for examples ethical investment services, environmentally responsible retailing (B & Q, IKEA, Body Shop) socially responsible business promotions (such as the Co-op and its support for fair trade products ) etc.

Beyond these new opportunities lies a second powerful driver for innovation around sustainability – its potential for creating discontinuous conditions. As we saw earlier in there are periods when the rules of the game change and this often threatens existing incumbents an opens up opportunities for new entrants to particular sectors. Trends such as those outlined above can build for some time and suddenly flip as social attitudes harden or new information emerges. The shift in perception of smoking form recreation to health hazard and the recent concerns about fast food as a major contributor to high obesity levels are examples and have had marked impacts on the rate and pattern of innovation in their industries.

Sustainability issues are often linked to regulation and such legislation can add additional force to changing the rules of the game – for example the continuing effects of clean air and related environmental pollution legislation have had enormous and cumulative effects on industries involved in chemicals, materials processing mining, and transportation both in terms of products and processes. Current directives such as those of the European Union around waste and recycling mean that manufacturers are increasingly having to take into account the long term use and disposal of their products as well as their manufacturers and sales and this is forcing innovation in both products, processes and administrative models ( such as whole life costing).

Discontinuities open up new opportunities as well as challenging existing arrangements and the other side of this sustainability coin is the potential for new growth markets in, for example alternative energy sources, green products and services and new transportation or construction systems.

Innovation linked to issues of sustainability often has major systems level implications and emphasizes the need to manage in integrated fashion. Such innovations arise for concerns in and need to be compatible with, complex social, political and cultural contexts and there is a high risk of failure if these demand side elements are neglected.