Sustainability-Oriented Innovation: A Bridge to Breakthroughs
Research suggests that adhering to a tradeoff model in business constrains innovation.
Leading Sustainable Organizations
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.
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