Sustainability: driving or constraining innovation?

The fact that (radical) innovation is needed to change businesses and achieve a sustainable world has been argued on this blog already – it is, after all, its main building block. What we haven’t touched upon yet but what has come across in some of the recent discussions I’ve had, is whether sustainability actually acts as a driver of innovation. Or does it, on the contrary, constrain it?
I’ve received mixed responses. On the hand, sustainability can be seen to act as a platform for innovation, creating momentum, providing a cause and vision to steer innovation.
On the other hand, sustainability is also seen as a constraint for various reasons. Some people are put off by the scale of the issues at hand, and the somewhat scientific nature of them – creating a sort of paralysis or voluntary ignorance all together. In this way, sustainability hinders the innovation process as some are simply too intimidated by it or are left feeling powerless in what they can realistically achieve. Some have also brought up the limits that sustainability imposes, such as on materials or processes that are used.
Another discussion I had brought forward the distinction between cost and growth innovation (thanks to one of my interviewees!) and how the use of a sustainability lense to drive both types differs. Cost innovation, as its name suggests, relates to innovation which reduces costs of a product or service “at an unparallel cost base to anyone else before.” With this type of innovation, sustainability can easily act as driver as reducing costs is often associated with being more efficient, which eventually translates to being more sustainable. However, I’d like to point out that, I agree with Ehrenfeld (who wrote a book called “Sustainability by Design”) when he says that “reducing unsustainability will not create sustainability”. As such, cost innovation, just like incremental innovation, is not really doing enough.
Growth innovation is described as providing something that has not been thought of or never been experienced by consumers before. With this type of innovation, it’s more challenging to use sustainability as a driver or a starting-point as there are many assumptions to made, and the chances of getting it “wrong” are very high as there is no precedent. Fear of getting it wrong is something that I’ve come across somewhat frequently when discussing sustainability and innovation. Particularly with public or consumer-facing businesses, companies are reluctant to launch innovations as they fear they will scrutinized from all sides if it isn’t perfect. Some may also be afraid that a big radical innovation will create other sustainability issues in the future (e.g. biofuels…).
While it is certain that mistakes will be made, businesses and anyone innovating in sustainability needs to remember that there currently is no completely right or wrong answer, and that with no precedent, the best thing to do is to explore and give it a go. Sustainability should not be seen as limiting. It should, rather, be embraced as creating opportunities where constraints are accepted as challenges to work around towards a much bigger journey. Necessity is the mother of invention.
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2 responses to “Sustainability: driving or constraining innovation?

  1. Great Blog Ilana! It’s given me alot to think about. To be sustainable is to realise that resources are finite, innovating without constraint has bought us to the situation we are in now, and current business models will fail because of it. If we do want to continue to grow, we will have to do more with less. This is why I think innovating with constraints is the best way to drive sustainability and growth.

  2. Ilana. Hi. Very good thoughts in this. A few years ago I sat through a speech where the Marks & Spencers MD told hundreds of construction industry people that innovation in construction arises when companies are unrestrained by regulation. Many of us in the audience were amazed at the man’s lack of insight into this industry, where building regulation has been almost the only effective driver of innovation for many decades. Indeed, in the 80’s civil engineering trainees were made to write exam essays on the reasons behind the dearth of innovation among construction companies. What we can see is that constraints can be stimulants to innovation or can hold it back. The need for sustainability can be translated into behavioural norms, standards, regulations etc which are framed in a way which encourages, allows and, crucially, protects innovations. Or not. That’s the choice.

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