What is radical innovation anyway?

Radical innovation has become somewhat of a buzz word in the sustainability world in recent times, but what on earth does it actually mean?

In the corporate sector, the term ‘innovation’ has been classically viewed as a novel product, service or process that successfully generates economic value for the firm. However, this definition does not overtly recognise the need for other forms of purpose, such as environmental and social sustainability. The meaning of ‘success’ could also be debated; whilst many innovations may never become commercially successful, they could contribute to substantial organisational learning, which may or may not be determined a success in its own right.

However, if the concept of ‘innovation’ is problematic, exactly what constitutes ‘radical’ innovation is even more so. Amongst both academics and practitioners, definitions of ‘radical innovation’ can vary widely, particularly when the term is applied to the widely contested field of sustainability.

Many argue simply that ‘radical’ innovation must deliver a step change in performance improvement if sustainable development is to be realised. However, others argue that limiting the focus of innovation to performance improvements (either of the product or the process) has historically diverted efforts away from those types of ‘radical’ innovations with the potential to truly deliver sustainable development. Certainly, there is much documented evidence to indicate that efficiency improvements have thus far failed to keep pace with rising global consumption.

Some stipulate transformation on a much higher level than that of performance, calling for a level of innovation that requires a fundamental change of business model. For example, moving from a product-based business model to that of a service-based business model may offer an opportunity to address unsustainable consumption.

Others suggest that, regardless of an individual firm’s innovation capabilities, it cannot achieve sustainable innovation in isolation; a business cannot be sustainable within the context of an unsustainable system (Gray and Milne, 2004).  An interesting view on this topic comes from Ballard, Reason & Coleman (2010), who proposes that such wider systems (which include worldviews, market and social structures) become ‘locked-in’ to the existing ‘status quo’, and are thereby highly resistant to change. To deliver sustainability, he argues, the system must be challenged; identification of resistance indicates that the innovation challenges the current system. Thus, radically innovating for sustainability will result in the identification of systemic resistance.

This particular viewpoint presents further challenges from the perspective of an individual organisation, namely; exactly how and by whom should such resistance be addressed? Hellstrom (2007) argues that, although wider contextual change must occur, this can in some instances be catalysed by the innovation itself. Such a proposition implies the boundaries of influence (and thus responsibility) of an individual organisation extend well beyond those implied by its legal definition. However, whether or not an individual organisation is capable of achieving the level of external change necessary to secure the commercial viability of such an innovation is clearly another matter entirely.

The table below summarises many of the interpretations of radical and incremental innovation that are prevalent today:

So what is ‘radical’ innovation? An ambiguous concept with no commonly agreed definitions, particularly when applied to the field of sustainability.


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