Sustainable innovation

The exploration of radical innovation has long been regarded as fundamental to the growth of businesses. Over the past decades, competition has steadily increased such that businesses cannot rely on short-term incremental innovation. They must instead pro-actively develop new markets and pursue radical innovation. The exploration of new opportunities is therefore no longer bound by an organisation’s strategic goals, resources, or other restrictions in the first stages of business creation – also commonly known as the ‘fuzzy front end’ of innovation. If a promising innovation opportunity in the subsequent stages of the innovation process fails to match the client organisation, then the idea is simply sold or turned into a separate business unit.

The need for radical innovation in industry has in recent years been supplemented with a broader intent in society to confront social and environmental challenges. It is now common for government institutions, NGOs, and local communities to join forces with industry to create new solutions that provide new value to people, business and society. The new movement is motivated by the concern that the modern, industrialized world is facing grave environmental and social problems. Pollution is widespread. The social sector does not meet the challenges in health care, child care, isolation of elderly people, public education, or inner city crime. The climate is changing due to human activity, and may soon pass a critical tipping point with unknown consequences. We only know for certain that the majority of the world’s population that lives in poverty will be further impoverished by climate change. At the same time, billions of people in India and China, who are trying to work their way out of poverty, demand the resource-intensive lifestyle that has been practised in the industrialized countries for decades.

These modern challenges have changed the questions that innovation addresses. Profit and consumer satisfaction remain important, but they are framed within a larger picture. Here are a few concrete examples of the new type of questions:

  • How can we make a flexible, attractive and environmentally-sound transport system for commuters?
  • How do we reduce household waste?
  • How do we empower local communities to improve safety in urban neighbourhoods?
  • How can mobile phones bring value to rural populations in developing countries?