Three components for sustainable innovation

My (Imperial College thesis) research looking at how to drive sustainable (radical) innovation in businesses (with a little help from Harmaakorpi 2009) led me to the following conclusion: sustainable innovation needs three components – that is creative thinking skills, expertise and motivation.

Expertise in sustainability is required as to enable the best decisions to be made. This was described to me, by one of my interviewees, as creating intuitive decision-making in sustainability. Within a sustainability context, people often fear that an innovation developed today may create bigger problems in the future if everything about it is not clearly understood at the present time. One only needs to look at first generation biofuels and the huge debate that followed their development to know what that means. Expertise, however, is not an easy task to achieve, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone within the organization needs to be 100% knowledgeable about sustainability. Expertise is created by optimizing organizational learning which includes creating a culture of failure acceptance and experimentation as has been described in other 6heads posts. It also means the organization needs to be open to learning through collaboration as the breadth of knowledge surrounding sustainability is too large for one to tackle alone.

Creative thinking skills and motivation come hand in hand. They are enhanced through better incentives and rewards – it is increasingly argued that people respond better to non-financial incentives such as the feeling of personal satisfaction, self-esteem building and reputation (for example look at Dan Pink’s TED talk)  Creative thinking skills are also driven by dynamic organizational structures which are less rigid, and less hierarchical than non-dynamic ones – where roles are less well defined and people are free to move through the organization. It’s also important to consider the implications of framing sustainability within a human wellbeing context for creativity and motivation (see my previous post on this for more information).

Finally it’s important to remember that these three components all influence each other and work together to create the right mix for sustainable innovation. Expertise in sustainability acts on motivation by removing fear of failure and the belief of something not being possible. Increased motivation encourages the quest for expertise and creative thinking skills through increasing desire to find new ways of solving problems. Creative thinking skills increases motivation as people like being creative (Pink, 2010), and will encourage the search for new paths to expertise.


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