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This blog post is the third in a four-post series on Sustainability-Oriented Innovation (SOI). See the first post, “Sustainability-Oriented Innovation: A Bridge to Breakthroughs,” for our definition and overview, and the second post, “Why Sustainability-Oriented Innovation Is Valuable in Every Context,” for a discussion of different types of SOI and the ways companies are using it. Our work builds on Accelerating the Theory and Practice of Innovation by Jason Jay and Marine Gerard. In this post, we address the wide variety of roles for SOI, why complex challenges require diverse networks, and the idea of SOI centers of excellence (CoEs) and SOI communities of practice (CoPs) to facilitate the establishment of those networks. We hope to catalyze our idea of developing a global network of CoEs and CoPs at MIT’s upcoming Sustainability Summit.
It takes a combination of fortitude and ingenuity to tackle sustainability issues. Not only are sustainability issues technically complex, requiring a knowledge of systems thinking, they are also managerially and socially complex. Sustainability-Oriented Innovation (SOI) involves managing a diverse set of stakeholders often not associated with other forms of innovation. Because of this, SOI leaders may benefit from centers of excellence (CoEs) and communities of practice (CoPs) that will help navigate that complexity and stakeholder diversity.
The typical innovation process is driven by stakeholders seeking to solve a private problem. For example, key players in the high-frequency trading industry were the first to invest in new microwave technology that shaved 2.3 milliseconds off order-transmission time between New York and Chicago.1 That innovation gave these early adopters a tremendous competitive advantage over the rest of the industry. With the development of laser transmission a few years later, the industry’s technological arms race bolted forward again.2
The SOI process, however, is not only limited to private-problem stakeholders. Because it involves consideration of the social and environmental impacts of the innovation across its life cycle and its wider systemic effects, it also includes public-problem stakeholders.
Consider the example of 1366 Technologies, a company that aims to increase the efficiency of multi-crystalline solar photovoltaic (PV) wafer manufacturing.
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1. A. Troianovski, “Networks Built on Milliseconds: Microwaves—Not Fiber Optics—Are Latest Thing for High-Frequency Traders,” The Wall Street Journal (May 30, 2012). www.wsj.com
2. S. Patterson, “High-Speed Stock Traders Turn to Laser Beams: Anova to Use Laser Devices for Fast Communication of Market Data,” The Wall Street Journal (February 12, 2014). www.wsj.com
3. J. Jay and M. Gerard, “Accelerating the Theory and Practice of Sustainability-Oriented Innovation,” MIT Sloan Research Paper No. 5148-15 (July 10, 2015).
4. A.M. Bankson, “MIT Sloan MBA students found Spoiler Alert app to match surplus food inventory with those in need,” MIT News (May 29, 2015); news.mit.edu
5. J.C. Buzby, H.F. Wells, and J. Hyman, “The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States. Economic Information Bulletin No. 121 (February 2014), USDA Economic Research Service.
6. D. Gunders, National Resources Defense Council. “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” NRDC Issue Paper 12-06-B (August 2012). https://www.nrdc.org.
7. Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, “Summary Analysis of Massachusetts Commercial/Institutional Food Waste Generation Data,” n.d., http://www.mass.gov/eea/docs/.
8. Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, “Commercial Food Waste Disposal Ban,” (October 1, 2014). http://www.mass.gov/eea/.
9. Jay and Gerard, “Accelerating the Theory and Practice of Sustainability-Oriented Innovation”.