The only type of innovation that will remain

Despite the fact that sustainability is steadily climbing higher upon the agenda of many companies, many still associate the concept with negativism, unrealistic idealism (and therefore not commercial), deceiving marketing...

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October 26, 2021
SDG & Sustainability

Despite the fact that sustainability is steadily climbing higher up on the agenda of many companies, many still associate the concept with negativism, unrealistic idealism (and therefore not commercial), deceiving marketing (greenwashing anyone?), or costs rather than an opportunity.

And so I wanted to reframe the conversation about sustainability with this piece to prove that, at heart, it actually is ‘just’ a positive design orientation, a new paradigm for innovation, or even an active form of futurism.

Reframing the conversation

I don’t use the words innovation, paradigm change and futurism because we businesspeople love talking about them so much. (We really, really do, right?) But because that is truly the core of sustainability: if we don’t act on our future together in positive ways, there won’t be any in the long term.

So it really is about:

  • Acting, on top of a mindset change
  • Together, as a system
  • With a long term perspective
  • To add value instead of extracting it

Let me unpack that for you...

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From forecasting to foreshaping

Futurism is often a pretty passive form of thinking. I don’t mean that in a bad way. We need people who look at emerging trends, see patterns and try to imagine scenarios of where this might lead us. Amy Webb is a good example of that, and I like her definition that goes beyond the woolly reputation that many futurists have: “A great futurist sees probabilities. Not prophecies.”:

Futurists—the good ones—aren’t alchemists, or oracles or fortune tellers. In many ways, they’re a lot like journalists. Except that rather than reporting on what’s already happened, they report on what’s starting to happen on the fringe, and they analyze that information within the context of our many changing environments. William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, once said: “The future is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Jack Uldrich, another futurist, recently offered perspective: “[Gibson’s] point was that the trends shaping tomorrow are here today but, often, they are on the edge–or fringe–of society. The best futurists are those who can identify trends and technologies that are ‘way off to the side’ today but will move from today’s periphery to tomorrow’s center.”

And though Webb’s form of futurism might be a lot less passive than that of many pundits and oracle tellers - she talks about “developing strategies and explaining what to do about” the future - we all know that a lot of her peers are more about (highly speculative) vision than about strategizing and execution.

Sustainability futurism, however, is (pro)active. So it’s about putting vision into action, by innovating. You can’t just think about building a great future for generations to come but at the same time develop products that are bad for the self-esteem of young people, the environment, society in general, etc. And that is sadly often still the case for many companies: their version of sustainability is often more theoretical than practical. More about communication than about actual impact. Rather than forecasting, sustainability should be about foreshaping: shaping the future by acting now in ways that will benefit our future selves as well as the descendants of our network (and that of others).

From a negative to a positive paradigm

Sustainability is too often regarded as a negative paradigm: many people misunderstand it as an approach that forces us to omit certain types of behaviour (don’t buy plastic, don’t drive fossil-fuel cars, don’t buy clothes from unfair brands,…) rather than allow us to live and create better lives (treat our employees and customers better, build products that add value to society and nature…).

For companies, it actually represents enormous opportunities for developing new processes, solutions and business models that focus on adding value to nature, humans and/or society rather than extracting it (and generating waste).

That is why the concept of regeneration is gaining in popularity thanks to experts like Innovation Biologist and author Leen Gorissen and Industry Analyst and Founder at Kaleido Insights Jessica Groopman. They advocate that innovation should evolve from a degenerative value system to regenerative value creation. This is how Leen Gorissen describes it in her book on Natural Intelligence (NI):

Regeneration is a biological process of renewal that leads to a higher order of health, wealth, vitality and viability. Mushrooms make rain, whales cool the climate, termites green the desert and plankton make clouds. Leave it better than you found it. That is the way life works. Once we truly grasp what this means, we will see that sustainability is the byproduct of regenerative value creation because only those species that leave the planet healthier, more vital and more viable (in terms of ability to survive) can last in the long term.

For Jessica Groopman, regeneration really is the next phase of business model innovation, moving beyond what we traditionally perceive as sustainability:

From short term to Day After Tomorrow Thinking

Another crucial part of sustainability futurism is what Peter Hinssen would call ‘Day After Tomorrow Thinking’. The reason is that we will not be able to shape a better future for generations to come if we only have short term gains in mind.

Roman Krznaric, who wrote the bestseller “The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World”, talks about the principle of “seventh-generation decision-making” practised by many Native American communities. The example he often gives is that of Japan’s Future Design movement, which gathers citizens to discuss and draw up plans for the towns and cities where they live. “Typically, half the group participate as residents from the present day, while the other half are given ceremonial robes to wear and told to imagine themselves as residents from 2060. It turns out that the residents from 2060 systematically advocate far more transformative city plans, from long-term healthcare investments to climate change action. This innovative form of future citizens’ assembly is now being used in major cities like Kyoto and Japan’s ministry of finance, and is starting to be spread worldwide to countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Holland.”

In many ways, being forced to think about the really long term, will automatically result in more sustainable strategies and solutions. This mindshift will not be easy in a world reigned by “Buy now, pay later” buttons and nervous boardroom members breathing down our necks. But, like CEO of Pax Scientific  Jay Harman says: “If it is not sustainable, it is terminal”

Understanding how systems work

Now, if we want to shape a better future for our descendants over the long term, we’ll have to work together and understand how deeply connected our world is. And so the third pillar of sustainable futurism and innovation is a networked or systems approach.

Allow me to diverge just a little bit with this beautiful description by evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis which perfectly illustrates how deep the interdependence and interconnectedness of life runs across time and space:

The past is all around us. Darwin’s biggest contribution was to show us that all individual organisms are connected through time. It doesn’t matter whether you compare kangaroos, bacteria, humans, or salamanders, we all have incredible chemical similarities…. [The pioneering Russian geochemist Vladimir] Vernadsky showed us that organisms are not only connected through time but also through space. The carbon dioxide we exhale as a waste product becomes the life-giving force for a plant; in turn, the oxygen waste of a plant gives us life. This exchange of gas is what the word spirit means. Spirituality is essentially the act of breathing. But the connection doesn’t stop at the exchange of gases in the atmosphere. We are also physically connected, and you can see evidence of this everywhere you look. Think of the protists that live in the hind-gut of the termite, or the fungi that live in the rootstock of trees and plants. The birds that flitter from tree to tree transport fungi spores throughout the environment. Their droppings host a community of insects and microorganisms. When rain falls on the droppings, spores are splashed back up on the tree, creating pockets for life to begin to grow again. This interdependence is an inexorable fact of life.

A big advocate of combining systems thinking with sustainability is Wayne Visser. He believes that one of the reasons why we are still failing on some of the key sustainability issues - like the environment, forced migration, biodiversity decline, inequality, etc. - is exactly a lack of systems thinking: which is the ability to perceive things in terms of relationships, patterns and context. He talks about the integrated value web, where companies need to understand how the economic system interacts with the other social, human, knowledge and ecological systems:

Visser believes that these are the 5 forces of systemic innovation, which work best when they are combined together:

  1. Secure innovation in the resilience economy: this is how you lower risk in society, aid recovery in catastrophe and foster continuity
  2. Smart innovation in the exponential economy: this is how you boost empowerment and counter disconnection through smart technologies like IOT and AI
  3. Shared innovation in an access economy: this is how you increase fairness, inclusive design through for instance shared platforms
  4. Sustainable innovation in a circular economy: this is how you create renewable products, zero waste design and remain carbon positive
  5. Satisfying innovation in a wellbeing economy: this is how you foster vitality and happiness to counter societal discontent

The ‘how not to’ example Visser likes to give is of the failure of the broken system of Apartheid which was:

  • Exclusive: benefitting the minority in power
  • Exploitative: abusing labour and human rights
  • Extractive: using natural resources unsustainably (see also my point about regeneration versus degeneration above)

These are the reasons why Apartheid finally collapsed and the attentive reader will immediately see that our current economy tends to work in the exact same way. Unstable systems are doomed to disintegrate. This is just as true at the macro-economic level as at the micro-level of a company.

So if you want your employees to foreshape the future and innovate in sustainable ways, they will need to have a basic understanding of systems thinking: how systems work, what makes them unstable and what makes them thrive. If they get it right, they will be able to innovate in ways that’s good for your business, your employees, your stakeholders, the social fabric and the environment. This might sound almost too “Big”, but they are all interlinked and influence each other anyway: understanding how to use these relationships to the benefit of all – which includes yours – is the only way to go. I simply love the example of Danone (courtesy of a keynote by Jessica Groopman) which reorganized to scale positive impact across all stakeholders, from suppliers, employees, customers to partners and the environment: even helping local farmers lowering their costs, boosting income and increase the long-term quality of their land and products.

Part of this is of course to let the idea go that sustainability is merely about preserving the environmental context: it’s just as much social as it is commercial and environmental because, well, humans and organizations operate in a system that is social, environmental and commercial. You can clearly see this diversification in the UN’s sustainable development goals:

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The only type of innovation

If all of the above sounds overwhelming, just realize these three things:

One. My reframing ‘just’ builds on the shoulders of innovation and science giants who have been telling us for years about the importance of long term planning (McKinsey, Peter Hinssen, Stewart Brand and his fellow Long Now Foundation members…) or systems thinking (Fritjof Capra, Donella Meadows, Lynn Margulis,… ). Though they did not always talk about sustainability, the latter really is a by-product of these types of thinking.

Two. Just think of all the value that you will create if you move beyond the classic view on sustainability and focus on regeneration. As Leen Gorissen put it: “For most, sustainability is about trying to reduce negative impacts. While regeneration is about creating positive impact.” Or in the words of Daniel Christian Wahl (the visual below is his as well): “The step from sustainability to regeneration is more than a change in simple terminology. It is a change in mindset and worldview that will drive profound transformation.” That’s why Jessica Groopman believes that “Instead of simply striving for “more with less,” businesses ought to play a key role in achieving “better with less.”

Three. A time will come that “sustainable innovation” and “innovation” will be completely interchangeable. Remember when we used the word “digital” to differentiate digital technologies, a digital watch or digital marketing? And then the word became completely obsolete. I believe that the same will happen to “sustainable”. Governments, consumers, employees and all other stakeholders will no longer accept any other form of product, market or service innovation. Just like we warned companies a few years ago that they had to integrate digital into their systems before it became the New Normal, I’d like to tell you that the time to make your workforce truly understand what sustainability is all about (so that they can act on it) is now.

Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence Van Elegem
Laurence has more than 10 years of experience in marketing, communications and disruptive innovation. Passionately curious, she is fascinated by the impact of technology and science on the way we work, consume and live our lives.
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October 26, 2021
SDG & Sustainability