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Sustainable innovation

These days the innovation agenda has a significant space devoted to thinking about the challenge of sustainability.   Maybe you’re a pessimist, seeing dire threats in the rate at which we are using up the planet’s resources and despoiling it as we go along this road, carelessly throwing the litter of our thoughtless consumption for later generations to pick up. Or maybe you are an optimist, seeing new opportunities in this changing world perspective, shifting to low carbon solutions, cleaner energy and smarter homes and cities.   Either way it’s likely that innovation- right across the spectrum, from new products and services, through new and improved processes to rethinking our underlying business and social models – will be involved. And this raises some important questions about how we approach the management of this – is it simply a case of business as usual or do we need to adjust and extend our routines for handling the challenge?

We did some work recently for the Network for Business Sustainability looking at this question and developed a model which saw the challenge in terms of three levels:

Operational optimisation – doing what we do but better

Organizational transformation – creating new opportunities

System building – enabling societal change

Whilst there is now quite extensive experience around the first two, the challenge of moving to thinking and working at a system level is significant. So it was good to find a new book which explores this in some depth and with a host of practical examples. The book is ‘Sustainable innovation’, written by Andrew Hargadon whose earlier work on how breakthrough innovation really happens and the key role of networks and brokers has been very influential.

The core of the book explores the capabilities which mangers need to develop within their organizations if they are to operate effectively in the sustainable innovation space. Each chapter explains a key area and then tries to draw down some specific management actions which might help, offering useful tools and frameworks for doing so on the way. Amongst key themes are the idea that what we term ‘revolutions’ in innovation are often long-term affairs, with many of the key elements already being in place for years or even decades. At a key point there is convergence and the radical shift takes place – but looked at over time it is a case of ‘long fuse, big bang’. Understanding these dynamics lies behind previous successful innovations at a system level – he uses extensively the examples of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison – and there is a need to build this system-thinking capability. He cites many failures in the sustainability space – for example the Better Place battery swap technology – which lacked this systemic perspective.

A key part of this capability lies in what he calls ‘nexus thinking’ – the ability to see and make relevant connections and build networks. In a world of hype around open innovation it’s helpful to have some insights about how to conduct this process in practical fashion – again learning some lessons from history. His earlier ideas about ‘recombinant innovation’ are helpful here as are the suggestions for how to enable effective brokerage and boundary spanning.

He also highlights the big challenge of ensuring compatibility with existing technical and social systems if innovations are to diffuse to scale. Once again Edison’s approach to this issue is instructive; rather than seek direct replacement of gas with electricity he gradually moved the idea into households; the light bulb was really a ‘Trojan horse’ to allow acceptance of what was a much broader set of technologies. The advice here is partly about ‘disguising technology’ so that users do not feel alienated by it but rather accept it as a version of something familiar.

Overall the book is well-structured and clearly written; it is very readable and full of practical, tools to help develop the capabilities which he talks about. At the same time it will be of value to students and researchers working in the field of innovation management. It offers a valuable extension to our understanding of innovation theory, challenging the ‘one size fits all’ models and suggesting we need to develop new variants to help deal with the sustainability innovation challenge. This book offers much more than a sketch map of how we might begin that journey.

(Details: ‘Sustainable innovation’, (2015) , Andrew Hargadon, Stanford University Press, ISBN 9780804792509)

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