Green innovation: making ripples or waves?

Sensemaking / Green innovation: making ripples or waves?

Without systems thinking, even the best new ideas can only go so far says WWF’s Dax Lovegrove. What will it take to join up the dots?

23 May 2012

Without systems thinking, even the best new ideas can only go so far says WWF’s Dax Lovegrove. What will it take to join up the dots?

Green innovation is gaining momentum, but will it fundamentally shift business towards resilience, or it will it stay in the hothouse? For it to take off in any meaningful way, it has to sit well with other changes in the market. When new threats emerge, the reality for established businesses can be 'Innovate or die!'. Take the digital camera revolution. Some companies, such as Fujifilm, moved with the times and sought out new opportunities, from digital cameras for a consumer market to computer software for photofinishing and medical imaging. Kodak, on the other hand, was overtaken by events and eventually filed for bankruptcy.

Firms that create shared value by connecting with others are the ones to watch

Already in 2012, a number of events have marked growing interest in this field. The World Environment Centre and nearly a dozen multinational companies set up the Innovations in Environmental Sustainability Council. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ran an event on eco-innovation; Israel hosted its 'Innovation in Greentech' conference, and the Detroit Motor Show had its largest selection yet of 'greener' vehicles. But will this energy translate into any lasting rewards? What sets innovation for a resilient future apart from mere creative flair? And what might get in the way?

The OECD helpfully sets out some internal and external barriers to innovation at scale. There are traditional mindsets to start with: 'better the devil you know'... There's a reluctance to engage with sustainability, and sometimes a dearth of inspiring examples that can be replicated. The list goes on: siloes within firms; the need for investment…

What's the way around these challenges? Back to the question of context. Even the most heightened awareness of the immediate market won't give an accurate picture of what's to come. Innovators have to be systems thinkers. Whether their core business is transport, energy or food, they have to ask what really needs to change. Without this systemic approach, innovations will only provide incremental change – or, worse, support bad things being done better.

What really needs to change is everything from technologies and infrastructures to policies and behaviour – an agenda too daunting for any company to face alone. But what if we join up the dots? What do you get if you cross, say, the shipping world with the coffee companies? In Tukwila, Washington, sea containers at the end of their life as cargo are reused by Starbucks for their drive-through café (above).

There's much to gain from innovation in partnership. Take a closer look at shipping. Maersk, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics and others are harnessing solar, wind and wave energy to power cargo ships with increasing amounts of renewables. But while many optimise how they transport goods, few are asking driving questions about what they transport. The risk is that we get better at moving high-carbon goods, instead of coupling efficient transport with incentives to ship low-carbon goods.

In a nice display of leadership, Nissan recently chartered a partially solar-powered cargo ship to transport its electric vehicles (EVs) – keeping their embedded carbon emissions down. Nissan and other progressive car/infrastructure providers, such as Better Place, are also paying more attention to the changes in mindset that are needed to increase the desirability of EVs – possibly through more creative marketing campaigns in partnership with others.

Such players might also link up with other forms of low-carbon modes of transport, increasing their pull for the more carbon-conscious traveller. For Professor Fred Steward at the University of Westminster, partnerships between businesses and regional players such as mayors, city planners and utilities are increasingly important. In Munich, for example, Mobility for Tomorrow (aka 'mo') offers a point scheme whereby registered customers can earn discounts on low-carbon vehicle rentals when they use public transport. The concept was co-developed by design firm Lunar, the University of Wuppertal and the environmental non-profit Green City.

The firms that create shared value by connecting with others around them are the ones to watch. They will be riding the waves of their innovations, while others watch the ripples from the shore.

Dax Lovegrove is Head of Business and Industry at WWF-UK.

WWF-UK is a Forum for the Future Partner.

Photo: Tom Ackerman, Starbucks

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