Designing Inspiring Futures: Six Lessons of Sustainable Innovation

Sustainability remains the key term for our future world. As Steven P. MacGregor and Tamara Carleton embark on a major new research work which aims to gain insight into sustainable living in 2050, the authors distill key lessons from their recent treatise on sustainable innovation: lessons that can be applied both at company level, and to all individuals who have the power to shape an inspiring future.

Sustainability and Results

When futurist and engineer Buckminster Fuller faced personal tragedy in 1927, he resolved to ‘find out what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity’.1 Sustainability was key to his personal vision and renewed his hope in life. Fuller’s often philosophical—and at times obscure—work on synergetics and his various inventions distill to one basic precept: create more with less. Over time, Fuller’s work as a single individual has influenced and provoked how different groups have considered models of transportation, city planning, and homebuilding.

As we face our own future of possibilities, we take inspiration from Fuller who designed arguments that were never dull.2 Some may see an impending future in which sustainability requires a compromised life on all levels, while others see sustainability as a chance to combine long-term goals with a more responsible society. For us, sustainability offers a way to amplify our individual results and provides a powerful lens for accelerating innovation. Our own experience of design has shown that a reduced solution space may actually increase creativity, and so innovation may, in certain circumstances, work well with limitations. Emerging issues around resource scarcity are already beginning to produce the necessary focus in companies such as Unilever. A view on sustainability encourages a long-term mindset, as people gain more awareness of their actions operating within a broader ecosystem over time. By drawing on Fuller’s personal experiment in discovering how a single individual can make a difference, we too can adopt a similar outlook and learn from a growing number of examples in order to create and innovate system-level change that truly leads to an inspiring future.

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Sustainability and Innovation are Closer Than You Think

Our recent work on sustaining innovation focused on the necessary networks to make innovation both systemic and continuous, and we used sustainability as the key lens to uncover those secrets.3 Sustainability remains the key term for our future world. First, the economic troubles in recent years make us reflect on the durability of any success we may enjoy, and second, we recognise the role of society in the collaboration and production of that durability.

We consider sustainability from the value perspective—the enduring competitive position of an organisation, and its ability to innovate on a continual basis as shown by its market results—as well as the values perspective, in which the society-wide context of sustainable development is complemented by the role of business within society through the beliefs and principles of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Value and values are hardly comfortable bedfellows, partly due to a persistent myth that doing well (value) cannot equate to doing good (values), yet there is much common ground to be seized in this increasingly collaborative era. Both value and values, as we describe them here, require the efforts of a broad spectrum of stakeholders—be they end users, suppliers, employers, employees, policymakers, or other actors—in an innovation ecosystem.

A growing number of scholars and practitioners have addressed the links between the two concepts of value and values. Michael Porter’s thesis on shared value attempts to move notions of responsibility and fairness closer to the economic mainstream by linking values with value, and, in spite of some criticism, is a positive contribution to the field of economic management.4 Porter advises on dropping the CSR term, partly given the U.S.-centric view that CSR is closely associated with philanthropy, yet Europe has traditionally taken a broader view on the term with, for example, previous work on corporate social opportunity helping to influence Porter’s current thesis.5

In our view, CSR, by whatever name, is important to an understanding of sustainability because it provides a set of guidelines and mission-driven ethos that there ought to be a better way of doing things that is in the best interests of all in the long term. Innovators, including William McDonough with his Cradle-to-Cradle concept, show a possible future vision that brings together elements of both value and values.6 In other words, what an organisation believes as its values can powerfully influence the value that is produced.

Ultimately, we believe that the systematic, continuous generation of value can only be achieved when all stakeholders are considered and share in that value or, at the very least, are not victims of others’ value gain. Consider the rapid growth of Silicon Valley in the last two decades, a region that continues to dominate global innovation rankings. Silicon Valley exemplifies a model of broad-based employee ownership, in which nonexecutive employees and line workers have the opportunity to own company shares and stock options in their own companies, allowing them to benefit from their knowledge and labor alongside management and investors. Practices in good corporate citizenship and user-driven innovation have similar visions of broad stakeholder involvement at their core, engaging extensive communities of users in the process of value creation. These examples and more confirm to us that a multi-layered consideration of sustainability, in which responsibility, inclusiveness, and competitiveness are intertwined, is both necessary and meaningful to an understanding of complex collaboration models.

The systematic, continuous generation of value can only be achieved when all stakeholders are considered and share in that value or are not victims of others’ value gain.

Models of Innovation Collaboration

The state of knowledge about innovation collaboration continues to grow. A common model is the triple helix, which refers to the innovation triad of business, academia, and government.7 Introduced by Henry Etzkowitz some 15 years ago, this simple model helps explain the dynamic interplay occurring between these three institutional spheres. In their classic roles, government authorities provide the social mission, regulation requirements, and funding; academic groups lead in research and discovery efforts; and businesses find new market opportunities that puts the resulting innovation into the hands of users. Etzkowitz posited that these roles were becoming increasingly shared and interdependent. Businesses, universities, and governments—previously relatively separate and distinct institutions—were now assuming tasks in the development of new technologies that were once the province of the other.

During the late 1990s and 2000s, the mainstream adoption of the Internet influenced practices of distributed working and applications of social computing. The individual became involved in broad-scale innovation in more ways, and power dynamics shifted slightly in the original model of the triple helix. Collaboration became more fluid within and between the different institutional spheres, and the notion of a quadruple helix emerged that blended in the perspective of a media-based and culture-based public.8 The new fourth axis encompasses civil society in terms of consumers, non-governmental organisations, and citizens—many of whom are active in designing their own services, providing input at key points in the innovation process, and determining the final value of innovation output.

Other models have gained traction in innovation circles, particularly with corporate management. The philosophy of user-centered design through books such as The Design of Everyday Things puts the needs of users at the center of the standard product design and development process.9 Modern design-led companies, like IDEO, have since built a thriving business based on this belief. Another model of open innovation, first described by Henry Chesbrough, addresses collaboration in terms of outsourcing partners, challenging notions of inventing from within an organisation.10 In this spirit, consumer products company Procter & Gamble transformed their R&D process several years ago, requiring internal product teams to source at least 50 percent of their ideas for new or refined products from outside the company.11


Six Lessons of Sustainable Innovation

These varied collaboration models provided the basis for our analysis of innovation and piqued our curiosity as to whether new or dominant models were being used to sustain innovation. What we found was that no one model dominated, yet six key lessons emerged which may help companies stay on top of the innovation wave.


Lesson 1: Share the Learning
Good ideas have always propagated in society, as science writer Matt Ridley argues, and thus human nature will always prosper from this viral effect.12 Today’s innovation efforts occur in an increasingly complex network of interactions, so it is easier to move knowledge around between groups. When considering efforts in sustainable innovation, sharing learning throughout the innovation process enables more parties to become involved and increases the likelihood of making broad-level impact.

Swiss textile company Rohner Textil AG provides a compelling example.13 By collaborating with product designer William McDonough, Rohner became one of the first ever companies to apply the Cradle-to-Cradle concept on a business level. Rohner updated its corporate vision in partnership with DesignTex, an American fabric design company. Rohner then engaged other groups in its production network—including wool farmers, chemical dye suppliers, loom equipment providers, and government regulators—to realise an ambitious vision of quality compostable products and process management. Rohner demonstrates that genuine sustainable development requires shared leadership and active alignment of multiple stakeholders. The company also shows that learning at one company can influence practices and applications in other networks globally, such as when Rohner’s work influenced the agricultural community in New Zealand.


Lesson 2: Borrow Tools From Others
Sharing knowledge also means sharing tools. Recreating the wheel for any occasion takes time, energy, and other precious resources. In the pursuit of sustainable innovation, it is wiser and ultimately more collaborative to adopt and adapt from others who share similar goals or have tried similar pursuits. This mission became the basis for a large research project called CLIQ (Creating Local Innovation in a Quadruple Helix), which studied the interactions of public administrations across several small- and medium-sized European cities.14 The research team attempted to gain a practical, policy-based view on the quadruple helix model and, in doing so, produced a free benchmarking methodology, blueprint, and toolkit for innovation that could guide the practical implementation of multi-helix collaboration for other city managers and community leaders.

Recreating the wheel for any occasion takes time, energy, and other precious resources. In the pursuit of sustainable innovation, it is wiser and ultimately more collaborative to adopt and adapt from others who share similar goals or have tried similar pursuits.

Lesson 3: Engage Empowered End Users
Good design starts by understanding the needs of end users. Likewise, good innovation includes good design—and integrates the end-user at different stages in the process. This user-centric practice has been recognised for several years and, while evident in success cases within design-driven companies, it is beginning to be harnessed in emerging markets. Consider many parts of Africa. Nam Mokwunye envisioned a way to transform African telecommunications by recognising the end user.15 The current telecom sector is heavily regulated, fragmented, and disorganised with inadequate infrastructure in multiple African economies. Mokwunye recommends that African policymakers and innovators distinguish between non-government groups in civil society and end users in their influence on practices of local technology transfer. He also separates out the layers embedded in any discussion of innovation networks by noting different activities occurring in parallel within physical, social, and virtual networks—which may or may not involve the same parties.


Lesson 4: Use Technology to Increase Scale
Today’s communication and business technologies allow groups of all size to reach, distribute, and affect more communities around the world. As costs decrease, the scaling effect becomes staggering on both usage and impact. As sharing, borrowing, and engagement become regular practice in a sustainability-driven world, one person may be able to generate a similar result as a large group. Size is not a limit, and although the means of capturing value from smaller units is still more art than science, success cases are beginning to emerge where design and start-up thinking show the power of experimentation, failure and agility in companies large and small. The imperative is to capitalise on the cumulative power that technology brings to sustaining innovation.

The Technology Strategy Board (TSB) made technology an essential part of its innovation strategy. As the national innovation agency of the United Kingdom, its goal is to accelerate economic growth by stimulating and supporting business-led innovation. While at TSB, David Coates created a web-based portal that enabled different British individuals and groups to connect across a complex web of business, academic, and government communities.16 This platform facilitated knowledge sharing for the country’s broad network of small businesses, and a dedicated ‘community manager’ helped ensured a vibrant and self-sustaining online exchange that lasted beyond the first project.


Lesson 5: Explore Outside your Industry
The banking sector has generated much fevered discussion around the causes and cures of the global economic crisis in the past few years. Considering the very real dangers faced by the sustainability of the European Union, Spain has often been at the epicentre of policy action, which makes the case of a Spanish bank BBVA particularly interesting in our research on sustaining innovation. In late 2006, BBVA decided to create a global innovation network, which met with skepticism, both within the banking sector and innovation circles in general. BBVA illustrates a fascinating case of how a company can have a broad interest in innovation outside of their core business, sharing insider details about the current global configuration of the network and specific projects that reflect the bank’s next generation of products and services, which are not confined to their present fields of business. Today, the BBVA innovation network is an open innovation ecosystem that relies on over 40 different actors spread across eight countries, which the BBVA team hopes, will continue to help them be more resilient in a troubled sector.


Lesson 6: Create more Spaces for Sharing
An effort in sustainable innovation recognises that building the future is often about re-building. In many ways, innovation is a constant search for the next breakthrough idea—and creating the conditions that allow for ongoing discovery. One critical action is to provide more places and spaces for people to congregate and communicate their ideas. This is the equivalent of a modern café, which enables the wider distribution and cross-pollination of both ideas and talent. It also allows for the mixing of formal and informal, which is another important aspect of how people truly innovate over time.

Telecommunications company Vodafone organised a Future Agenda program, a large-scale foresight initiative designed to deliver actionable insights about the world in year 2020.17 Building on seminal historical initiatives, such as Shell’s GameChanger program and IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook initiative, Vodafone recognised the importance of a global outlook balanced by local differences and attempted to create the requisite physical space to share those insights. The team held 50 workshops in 25 locations around the world, gathering insights from over 2000 people, and the resultant publication was exploited beyond Vodafone’s circles, including the Government of Singapore and the Discovery Channel.


Sustainable Lifestyles in 2050

These six lessons offer a practical means of pursuing sustainable innovation today. Yet how do we design a better tomorrow, which allows managers to translate what they do at work with how they might live at home and with others in society on a grander scale? With colleagues from across Europe, we will embark on our next major project to design how sustainable innovation translates to the day-to-day lives of the individual.

Our research team aims to explore, describe, understand, and enhance the active roles of users and consumers in shaping the green economy in Europe. This project will revolve around two of the European Union’s strategic priorities: generating ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’ within its member states, while likewise affecting a systemic transition to a low-carbon society. Instead of viewing consumers as (more or less) passive recipients of sustainable products, our team wants to investigate the productive, innovative and entrepreneurial roles of users in developing new sustainable products, services and systems. While acknowledging the value of companies, we ultimately want to investigate paths towards a sustainable society, which is becoming more user-centered and user-driven. In such a way, we hope to construct an inspirational view of the future, where sustainability is a powerful means of creating a better world for us all, and getting more with less. As Buckminster Fuller once said, ‘the best way to predict the future is to design it’.

Fuller also called himself a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientist’, which simply meant that he was willing to think systematically and across the usual disciplines for future possibilities. He was also a proponent of goals and aspirations that served community needs. Most of Fuller’s ideas were never truly realised, yet that does not prevent us learning what we can from an earlier dreamer—and then seeing how the next generations may carry his zeal forward into meaningful actions as part of the never-ending and cumulative cycle of sustainable innovation.

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About the Authors
Steven P. MacGregor, Ph.D., is founder and chief executive of The Leadership Academy of Barcelona (LAB) and author of Sustaining Executive Performance, published by Pearson.

Tamara Carleton, Ph.D., is founder and chief executive of Innovation Leadership Board LLC. She is also a Forum for Innovation Fellow with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

1. Phil Patton, ‘A 3-Wheel Dream That Died at Takeoff’, The New York Times, June 15th, 2008.
2. As termed by Patton in the New York Times article. Our view is that most of Fuller’s inventions were never fully realised, but they still proved valuable by challenging the status quo and inspiring a different way of looking at the world.
3. S. P. MacGregor and T. Carleton (eds.), Sustaining Innovation: Collaboration Models for a Complex World, Springer Science+Business Media. LLC 2012.
4. M. E. Porter and M. Kramer (2011) ‘Creating Shared Value,’ Harvard Business Review, January/February: 62-77.
5. D. Grayson and A. Hodges (2004) Corporate Social Opportunity! Seven steps to make corporate social responsibility work for your business, Greenleaf Publishing, Sheffield, UK.
6. W. McDonough and M. Braungart (2002) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. North Point Press, New York.
7. Henry Etzkowitz (1996) ‘The triple helix: Academic-industry-government relations in New York’in S. U. Raymond (Ed.) The technology link to economic development: Past lessons and future imperatives, Academy of Sciences, New York.
8. S. P. MacGregor, P. Marquès-Gou, A. Simon-Villar, A. Bikfalvi, J. Llach-Pagès CLIQboost: Creating local innovations for SMEs through the Quadruple Helix, , Documenta Universitaria, July 2010. ISBN: 978-84-92707-34-8.
9. D. Norman (1986) The Design of Everyday Things, MIT Press, Cambridge, US.
10. Henry Chesbrough (2003) Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology, Harvard Business School, Cambridge, US.
11. L. Huston and N. Sakkab (2006) ‘Connect and Develop: Inside Procter & Gamble’s new model for innovation’, Harvard Business Review, March: 58-66.
12. Ridley 2011 The Rational Optimist
13. Nigel Roome and Céline Louche (2011) ‘Strategic Process of Change: A Multiple Network Game—The Rohner Textil Case’, in S. P. MacGregor and T. Carleton (eds.), Sustaining Innovation: Collaboration Models for a Complex World, Springer Science+Business Media. LLC 2012: 95-113.
14. Laura Ahonen and Tuija Hämäläinen (2011) CLIQ: A Practical Approach to the Quadruple Helix and More Open Innovation, in S. P. MacGregor and T. Carleton (eds.), Sustaining Innovation: Collaboration Models for a Complex World, Springer Science+Business Media. LLC 2012: 15-30.
15. Nam Mokwunye (2011) Exploring a Vision for Sustaining Innovation in African Economies, in S. P. MacGregor and T. Carleton (eds.), Sustaining Innovation: Collaboration Models for a Complex World, Springer Science+Business Media. LLC 2012: 1-14.
16. David Coates (2011) A Network of Networks: The Case of the UK Technology Strategy Board, in S. P. MacGregor and T. Carleton (eds.), Sustaining Innovation: Collaboration Models for a Complex World, Springer Science+Business Media. LLC 2012: 125-140.
17. Roger Dennis, Tim Jones, and Leo Roodhart (2011) Technology Foresight: The Evolution of the Shell GameChanger Technology Futures Program, in S. P. MacGregor and T. Carleton (eds.), Sustaining Innovation: Collaboration Models for a Complex World, Springer Science+Business Media. LLC 2012: 153-166..



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