If we want to transition to a sustainable future, we need to rethink all aspects of our lifestyles. It’s no easy task: the complex and interconnected nature of the products and services we use every day to fulfill our food, energy, transportation and living needs must somehow be taken into consideration as companies and entrepreneurs innovate for sustainability. The good news is that stories of innovations which contribute to system-wide change already exist, and it is those stories that we would like to share through our newly produced Cookbook for Sustainability Innovation, put together by the Sustainability in Business Research Group at Aalto University, as part of the EU-InnovatE project with Forum for the Future.
The aim of the Cookbook is to showcase the variety of different methods and ingredients on which each of the innovations was based. It also highlights the wide range of different, and often unusual collaborators who took part in the co-creation process. One of these collaborator groups was citizens, who participated in all of the innovation processes in a variety of ways.
Some of the innovation processes were complex and large scale and involved multiple stakeholders early on to develop the final product or service. One such example is that of BMW’s development of the BMWi3, the group’s first mass-produced electric car. Early in the innovation process, the company collaborated extensively with citizens, public authorities, universities, energy providers, specialised innovation agencies and driving associations to develop this mobility solution. Citizen participation was especially valuable in idea contests and in extensively trialing the products.
In contrast, Frosta, the frozen food producer, involved citizens in an educational campaign. The company’s additive free frozen fish meals were developed based on feedback from research with customers. When they reached the commercialisation stage, they involved university students and nonprofit organisations to build an outreach programme to promote knowledge of food nutrition and sustainability to citizens. This educating role went further than informing about the product, aiming to create a wider awareness of health and food related issues.
Another variation is the choice to work with fewer citizen-stakeholders, but to invest more time in building strong relationships with them. This was the key to the new product innovations at Ecoveritas, a Spanish organic food retail company. By being open to citizens’ concerns about food wastage the company was able to find a sustainable solution through the development of new product recipes with a nonprofit foundation specialised in food technology. Close collaboration with another socially oriented organisation facilitated the employment of production staff from groups at high risk of exclusion from the work-force.
The internal environment of the company is also important when it comes to innovation for sustainability. Top management support, work culture and organisational involvement all featured in the cases. Rockwool, a Danish construction material manufacturer, provided their employees with time and resources to stimulate creative thinking for potential uses of stone wool. This trial and error culture made the company receptive to the idea of building temporary living shelters. In conversations with a nonprofit organisation, and by trialing the shelters with citizens at a local rock festival, the possibility for using the shelters to improve living conditions in refugee camps was born.
The recipes are not intended to be prescriptive, nor exhaustive. While there is not a single perfect co-creation recipe that fits all – our selection offers thought-provoking combinations of expansive or selective stakeholder networks, and shows the value of collaboration at different stages of innovation. Our hope is that the recipes in the Cookbook serve as a source of inspiration for any business, citizen, civil society organisation, entrepreneur, public authority, university or other stakeholder looking to innovate for more sustainable lifestyles.
For us as researchers and professors, the project has been a constant learning process, just as it was for the companies in the cases. Perhaps the most important insight for us was that we too have a role to play, both as observers and educators – and in our other roles as consumers, citizens, or members of civil society or educational organisations. Or to put it more simply, everyone has a role to play.
Jennifer Goodman is a Post-Doctoral Researcher with the Sustainability in Business Research Group at Aalto University School of Business.
You can find Aalto's cookbook here.