SUSTAINABILITY DEMANDS A RETHINK OF THE APPROACH TO INNOVATION
Innovation is a driving force of the business world, but its full potential has yet to be unleashed in the
push for sustainability
If you go looking for new products labelled both ‘sustainable' and ‘innovative' you will not have to search far. There are few if any large companies today that do not have a story to tell on sustainability, and more often than not they have products to go with that story. Whatever the sustainability issue it seems there is an innovative product vying to be part of the solution.
How about a material that can be used as a replacement for plastic and leather, is 100 per cent biodegradable and made from atmospheric carbon? That would be AirCarbon, a home-compostable material that can be formed into a range of products from kitchen utensils to fashion textiles, all made from captured carbon emissions. Or a device to remove smog pollution from the atmosphere and turn it into jewellery? That's the Smog Free Tower, already in place in the Netherlands, Poland, South Korea and China. Then there's the Fairphone, a modular smartphone in which every part can be replaced and recycled, unlike most of the digital devices we carry around with us.
These are all recent innovations, from an ever-growing list of products specifically designed to meet sustainability challenges. But will modest, product-by-product innovations really be enough to meet massive challenges such as carbon-driven climate change, biodiversity loss and water shortages?
Rethinking the innovation process
Some think not – and there are large businesses which have decided that a complete rethink of the innovation process is needed. Instead of innovating to cut costs (which has often been the motivation for innovation in the past and led to cheaper but less sustainable products and processes), they are innovating around long-term sustainability goals.
“Instead of innovating to cut costs… businesses are innovating around long-term sustainability goals”
This is something with a surprisingly long history. An influential Harvard Business Review article picked up on the trend more than a decade ago, pointing out that several large technology companies including Hewlett-Packard, General Electric, IBM and Cisco had begun innovation programmes based on upcoming sustainability regulations and trends, preparing new products and processes long before they were demanded by legislation.
These are examples of innovation in innovation – changes in the way that companies go about deciding which innovations are deserving of investment, based on whether they are net-positive for sustainability.
This is a difficult calculation, because some sustainability innovations have unexpected effects. More than 150 years ago, the English economist William Stanley Jevons, studying the effects of coal-fuelled steam power, identified the ‘Jevons Paradox'. This shows that efficiency innovations intended to reduce consumption of resources can actually end up increasing their use by making an activity more affordable for a larger group of consumers.
“Innovations intended to reduce consumption of resources can actually end up increasing their use by making an activity more affordable”
The need to avoid such unexpected effects is now part of many organisations' innovation missions. They use what is called a ‘nexus' approach based on collaboration between government, academia and business to try to anticipate all the dimensions of innovation, – something that has been written into the rules of the EU's Horizon Europe research funding initiative, for example.
This way of thinking is a recognition of the interconnectedness of many sustainability issues, and the way that environmental impacts tend to have multiple dimensions. It suggests that sustainability won't be achieved by blockbuster inventions, but by many innovations and many organisations working together.
“Sustainability won't be achieved by blockbuster inventions, but by many innovations and many organisations working together”
That doesn't mean we should dismiss the Smog Free Tower as an irrelevance. With a complex subject like sustainability, clearing the air is always a good place to start.