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6 Reasons Your Sustainability Innovation Is Failing

For the last few weeks, I’ve been participating in Leading Strategic Innovation in Organizations, a course by David A. Owens of Vanderbilt University. It’s a Coursera class, which means that it’s free and open to the public — and it’s huge (with tens of thousands of students “in attendance”). I’m fascinated by the topic of strategic innovation, and naturally want to apply the concepts to my own field of study: sustainability.

And here is the question I’m wrestling with: why is innovation not getting us closer to global sustainability? Climate change, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss—for all the brilliant advances in “green” processes, products, and services, we’re still losing the battle.

But why? Or at least, why is it taking so long?

In particular, I find Owen’s analysis of common innovation hurdles to be a great aid to my quest to understand why current innovation efforts don’t seem to be making a significant dent in our global sustainability problems.

Owen argues that hurdles to innovation can come from six different places. I’ve listed them below, along with my own comments about how they apply specifically to sustainability challenges.

Individuals Don’t Have the Mindset

Are individuals regularly challenged to think differently and challenge assumptions? This holds true for corporate employees, government drones, and stay-at-home moms. How often do any of us really stop and think about why we are doing the things that we’re doing, how they might be done differently, and our role in the larger “system”. Without an innovation mindset at the individual level, we’ll never come up with enough ideas to throw into the mix.

Example: The “average” employees. For most of us, life in the American workforce isn’t a hotbed of sustainability innovation. We get our jobs done, hope for a promotion, and struggle to maintain work/life balance. Rarely do we really wrestle with how to creatively disrupt our daily tasks with sustainable innovation.

The Group’s Culture Doesn’t Support Risk

Maybe individuals have great ideas, but the ideas are killed while still “tiny sweet things” because they are deemed too risky, too expensive, too disruptive, or just too crazy. It might be the boss crushing your dream, or simply a group culture that doesn’t encourage exploring bold new ideas.

Example: The last time your Green Team took a “great idea” to your boss, only to have it shut down because it was too expensive or time consuming. (But definitely go ahead with those cute stickers reminding people to turn off their lights!)

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6 thoughts on “6 Reasons Your Sustainability Innovation Is Failing

  1. Very thoughtful approach to innovation and sustainability. Read a sentence at a time, stop, and think five minutes each stop. Emphasis on “think”

  2. Because national-scale infrastructure transformations take 30-50 years.

    It took 30 years to build the first million miles of railroad track, the same to pave the first million miles of highway, and the same to put a computer in most households, and another 30 to hook most of them up to the internet.

    For example, renewable energy seems to be moving soooo slowly, but it is actually the fastest growing generation capacity, far outstripping coal, gas and nuclear installations, and on track to supply most of the world’s power in three or four decades.

    This isn’t like growing grass, it’s like growing trees. Even when you think it’s not happening because you can’t see it, it is.

  3. Unfortunately the speed of innovation introduction is limited by the big business network. For innovations are not brought into being unless a threat is seen forthcoming such as in the case of quite a few technologies we now take for granted. The ‘chip’ invented at the fundamental level by Kilby is a prime example. When Jack told the top managers at TI, they did not want to know of his private hobby until a little known new kid on the block appeared on the scene (forerunner to INTEL) as they were making millions out of manufacturing valves.

    The deciding factor according to S&T is a perceived threat and where the preservation of the bottom-line is paramount. In this respect I know of many large organizations around the world that have bought up patents and innovations to simply put them on the shelf and out of the reach of all others (for at least 20 years anyway). Big business has only one function, to make money and vast amounts at that. In 2011 Forbes stated that 2,000 global companies commanded 51% of the economic turnover of the world of in nominal terms $36 trillion. Therefore these enormous corporates will do anything to stop anything that will affect their profit line. Fact not fiction.

    Therefore the rate of change is dependent upon a minority of super-corporates and if it is in their interests or not to release a new innovation. The main determining factors to do this are,
    (1) Will it hit our current product lines and therefore the profit line
    (2) Is there a current threat from outside sources by them introducing an equivalent product/service

    Therefore the speed of introduction when in-depth research is undertaken is totally dependent on keeping the status quo as long as possible (because that is where vast wealth generation is coming from) and do whatever you can to achieve this steady state.

    In this respect there are more patents and innovations lying in the vaults of big business than there are that have been exploited to date by a factor of probably over 1000. Big business rules everything in reality including global innovation and its timely release.

    Dr David Hill
    World Innovation Foundation

  4. Most “good” ideas are NOT good. I.e. E85: it takes over 4,000 gallons of water, more than 1 gallon of diesel fuel, natural gas (to distill), plus petroleum based pesticide, herbicide, & fertilizer to make one gallon of ethanol.
    It takes more energy than it contains to haul it to California.
    E85 mandates caused the price of corn to increase 375%.
    Make sense yet? “Gov green” isn’t really green.

  5. Again as usual, CO2Good is completely wrong. The assertions in this latest post are complete lies. Here is the truth:
    “A 2007 study by Argonne National Laboratory found that when these entire fuel life cycles are considered, using corn-based ethanol instead of gasoline reduces life cycle GHG emissions by 19% to 52%, depending on the source of energy used during ethanol production (see graph). Using cellulosic ethanol provides an even greater benefit—reducing GHG emissions by up to 86%. … The Argonne study also found the well-to-wheel petroleum-use reduction to be more than 70%, regardless of the ethanol production pathway used.” The preceeding quote is from http://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/flexible_fuel_emissions.html.
    And corn prices have not been driven up 375% by the use of corn for ethanol. Average corn prices hae increased by about 100% over the past three years, data that can be found at http://ycharts.com/indicators/corn_price.

  6. I think one of the major problems when you are part of a large manufacturing corporation is changing the mindset. It can also be costly to invest in updated technologies and implement new programs.

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