Leverage Sustainability as Innovation Lens for Positive Change

Have you ever had that feeling of regret, like when you put off that $5K roof repair only to incur five times the cost in water damage repairs later? Well the good news is, it’s not your fault. It’s a product of brain evolution. Brain science tells us that the human brain has evolved to be expert at reacting to eminent danger. Although our brains also have the unique capability to anticipate future risks, our emotional brain always has the last word, and that word is usually ‘wait-¦wait until the danger is clear and eminent.’ This has worked pretty well for perpetuating the human species. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work so well for perpetuating business -” or social and economic prosperity.

The long-term success of companies depends on their ability to anticipate the future — to create and prepare for opportunities ahead. Business must constantly generate new insights and imagine new ways of working, and ultimately, deliver innovations that set them apart. This work is done by people, people with human brains averse to acting on future scenarios. They need tools.

Sustainability is one of the newest tools companies use to drive innovation, yet it may prove to be one of the most powerful. Why? Because sustainability-driven innovation is inherently a systems problem, and innovating in this dimension requires understanding the system.

In trying to innovate something as simple as packaging -“ or more accurately, product protection – one is forced to think about a host of things:

  • the design of the product itself;

  • the origins and social and environmental impacts of any materials that might be used to protect it;

  • fabrication and transport impacts;

  • the manufacturing system and logistics methods within which the solution will be deployed;

  • the entire user experience, and;

  • end of use and end of life impacts.

One can’t compartmentalize the problem or the solution. It requires integrated, systems-level design thinking.

This has many near and long term benefits for business. Thinking through lifecycle impact can deliver efficiency gains to business. Lean is green, right? Even more, thinking holistically about the ripple effects of design decisions can force new forms of collaboration within and outside our businesses, industries and geographies. Nobody can solve these problems alone. Sustainability also tends to form unlikely partnerships that can help build “complex systems” thinking skills within the organization. It can provide a creative lens for inspiring novel approaches and delivering innovation against all types of problems.

What is innovation, really? Delivering innovation can mean many things to many people. What does it look like? I once heard a person from the Institute for the Future define it best. They said true innovation fundamentally changes societal norms, behaviors and expectations. It seems a good definition, because if you haven’t changed behaviors or expectations, you really haven’t changed anything. If innovation is about social change, it follows that the innovator is a social change agent, and along with that comes tremendous responsibility. Innovators are obligated, then, to consider the intended and unintended consequence of their work on the social system. It’s simply not good enough to innovate in a bubble or serve limited interests.

In failing to embrace the role of a positive social change agent, business has often left a great deal of social, environmental and economic opportunity on the table. The market focus on sustainability may be just the catalyst we need to expand the expectations around innovation and the role of business in society.

Sustainability’s role as an innovation lens may have come at just the right time, because the economic and social issues we face are real and visceral. It signals a profound breakdown in systems thinking. As business people and as individuals we feel the negative effects. In every problem, however, there is a silver lining of opportunity. Who will embrace it and lead society forward?

It must be business. Business is beginning to develop deep literacy in sustainability and is currently best positioned to unleash its economic and intellectual power to address these complex issues. We can avoid the regret of ‘waiting until the danger is more clear and evident’ by leveraging sustainability as an innovation lens for good. In driving positive social change through our businesses we can build stronger companies and secure a more prosperous future for us all. The time is now.

Angela Nahikian, director, Global Environmental Sustainability for Steelcase Inc., -¨-¨heads a cross-company effort to ensure that Steelcase achieves its global sustainability goals. She is responsible for sustainability strategy and program development as well as integration of the key environmental platforms of life cycle management, materials assessment, and designing for recycling-reuse in new products. Reach her at [email protected].