Sustainability or wellbeing as a lens to drive innovation?

This question came up in a couple of interviews I conducted, and one I’m quite interested in exploring further.

Sustainability as a driver for innovation is something that businesses are already looking at quite extensively. And the need for innovation in sustainable development is also quite evident. But what about wellbeing? Should we place it at the heart of innovation, and emphasize it rather than sustainability? These questions bring in all sorts of other questions such what is the definition of sustainability? Or innovation? Should we talk about wellbeing to the masses, and/or use it in business? While I don’t propose to answer all of these (they would require a lot more thought, analysis and space than a short blog), I will touch upon some of them.

Let’s start at the beginning. Wellbeing is defined by NEF (New Economic Forum) as ‘people’s satisfaction with their lives, and people’s development which may include curiosity, personal development, fulfillment, autonomy, and having a purpose.’ Ehrenfeld (whom I already mentioned in my previous blog for his ‘Sustainability by Design book’) focuses on what he calls human flourishing (essentially similar to wellbeing). To define flourishing, Ehrenfeld uses a description written by a Rabbi, Michael Lerner, to explain his concern for ‘Tikkun Olam’, literally meaning ‘healing the world’, which is key concept of Judaism (I’ve included the entire description, it’s quite lengthy but I really like it): “Recognise that people hunger for a world that has meaning and love; for a sense of aliveness, energy and authenticity; for a life embedded in a community in which they are valued for who they most deeply are, with all their warts and limitations, and feel genuinely seen and recognized; for a sense of contributing to the good; and for a life that is about something more than just money and accumulating material goods.” Last but certainly not least, John Elkington’s definition of sustainability also focuses on human wellbeing – he sees it ‘a safe, secure, healthy and equitable world of 9 billion people in 2050.’

So how do we use this for innovation, rather than using the more commonly-perceived definition of sustainability as the basis for it? And why is it potentially better? Ehrenfeld argues that if human flourishing ‘is properly articulated, it can be the strongest possible driver toward sustainability.’ Using the wellbeing lens to drive innovation and sustainability development creates a powerful story; it brings it closer to home and has the potential to act as a greater motivator than “saving the planet.” One of the reasons why there is still so much to be done in terms of sustainability (despite the environmental movement being around for decades) is that many people find it hard to relate to. They see it as something that is temporally distant, and disconnected from their lives and their personal wellbeing. And the same can apply to motivate employees to innovate within organizations – make it relevant to them, their future and their children’s wellbeing. Using the wellbeing lens is all encompassing; it’s framing sustainability within the human context.

Finally, how do businesses achieve this? It will be a lengthy, complex, resource-intensive, game-changing process but I suppose it starts with an organisation defining what human wellbeing and flourishing means within its business context and innovating new products, services, and business models (!) to match that.

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2 responses to “Sustainability or wellbeing as a lens to drive innovation?

  1. Pingback: Three components for sustainable innovation « 6heads·

  2. Pingback: Three components for sustainable innovation – taublerone·

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