Sustainability-Oriented Innovation: A Bridge to Breakthroughs

Research suggests that adhering to a tradeoff model in business constrains innovation.

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Leading Sustainable Organizations

Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
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This blog post is the first in a four-post series on Sustainability-Oriented Innovation (SOI), offering a definition and overview of SOI. The series builds on Accelerating the Theory and Practice of Innovation by Jason Jay and Marine Gerard. Subsequent posts will explore different types of SOI and the different ways companies are using it, as well as the idea of SOI centers of excellence (CoEs) and SOI communities of practice (CoPs) to facilitate the establishment of those networks — topics we hope to further expand at MIT’s upcoming Sustainability Summit.

“Innovate or die” has become almost a mantra for companies in this era of rapid technological change and globalization. When we consider such conditions as extreme air pollution in Beijing, factory collapses in Bangladesh, drought in California, and deadly heat waves in India, the darker side of this foundational belief stands out in high relief. Yet we continue to settle for and cling to consumption-based business models that add to these global threats. Many large companies have survived and thrived for decades by selling high-calorie, sugary drinks or distributing apparel made by people working in extreme poverty for unfair wages in unsafe conditions.

Overcoming these challenges and enabling societies to thrive on a planet with increasingly finite resources will take significant innovation. We call this sustainability-oriented innovation (SOI).

SOI is about dispelling the notion of tradeoffs between what seem to be competing goals — performance versus impact, profit versus purpose, human wellbeing versus environmental protection. Our research suggests that when we no longer see these goals as competing, we create products, services, and business models that are holistic rather than fragmented. The potential for SOI exists within all firms. We just need to understand the barriers to unleashing it. Our research suggests that one critical barrier to achieving SOI is the “sustainability tradeoff” view of the world, a mental model that says having a positive social and environmental impact must exist as a tradeoff with more traditional business drivers.

Topics

Leading Sustainable Organizations

Corporate adoption of sustainable business practices is essential to a strong market environment and an enduring society. What does it mean to become a sustainable business and what steps must leaders take to integrate sustainability into their organization?
See All Articles in This Section

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Comments (2)
Jason Jay
@SACHIARIEL thank you for taking the time to read our post, and for the very thoughtful comment. I think you are right on. For the idea of SOI to catch fire, we need more great examples that are a.) scaling to a point where they can impact large-scale sustainability issues (and people recognize them), and b.) exhibit the kind of holistic approach that you and we advocate. I would love to see more of those examples come out in the comments here. For this post we leaned toward (a) for the sake of engaging a wide audience in the conversation. Watch the subsequent posts in our series (we plan for them to come about every two weeks this season) where we give some examples that are heavier on (b) like Sanergy and Spoiler Alert.

You raise a fantastic point that we distain incremental innovation in technology but celebrate it in sustainability, when it is exactly sustainability where we need significant disruption and change. We will keep that in mind as the work unfolds.
sachiariel
Hello, I definitely appreciate the intentions of your work and the challenges of integrating sustainability into a profit first oriented business model. 

You comment in paragraph three: "SOI is about dispelling the notion of tradeoffs between what seem to be competing goals — performance versus impact, profit versus purpose, human wellbeing versus environmental protection. Our research suggests that when we no longer see these goals as competing, we create products, services, and business models that are holistic rather than fragmented." 

I believe that a holistic, systems approach is our only way to tackle the myriad of challenges we have within our current resource consumptive economic model. I realize that you are working to appeal to large companies who are most motivated by profit toward sustainability goals. That said, I find a conflict between your statement about seeing social, environmental and economic goals as holistic and the companies you highlight. Yes, it is great that Nike is creating shoes that are less resource consumptive to produce. How long do they last? Where do they go when they are discarded for the 2017 model that Nike wants to sell? Uber is being challenged legally in many locations regarding their labor practices and the creation of a business model that provides little to no stability for their labor force. I would love to see some examples of where the type of holistic thinking that you mentioned exists in their business strategy. 

How do we balance all of those things? I believe in a holistic systems approach to design and business that includes social and environmental values and I am concerned that we are incremental in our approach to arriving there. I hear disdain for incremental innovation when it comes to technology innovation but find it celebrated when it comes to discussions of innovation in sustainability.