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Connecting innovation with sustainability

Nov 30, 2016


Professors Tima Bansal (Ivey Business School) Joel Gehman (University of Alberta) and Marie-France Turcotte (UQAM) were awarded a $2.5-million grant from the Government of Canada to help companies connect innovation with sustainability. In this Q&A, Prof. Bansal and her colleagues talk about why this work is so important, what it will accomplish, and how businesses can get involved.

Q1. Why do innovation and sustainability need to go together? How hard is it to accomplish this in business?

Answer: Sustainability is about creating shared value—value for the business and for society simultaneously. It means business activities benefit a range of stakeholders—shareholders, employees, the community, society, the ecosystem—today and over time.

But if sustainability was easy, everyone would be doing it well. It’s not easy. It’s complex and it’s uncertain. In an effort to simplify, firms often think about sustainability as an ‘add on’ to what they’re already doing. This approach results in a vastly distorted picture of a firm’s long-term sustainability potential.

Most companies have taken small steps toward product stewardship, responsible supply chain, employee engagement, and pollution prevention. This is a start, but what we need to aim for—what will create the greatest value for the firm and society—are systemic changes and radical innovations.

Even when products improve society or the environment, companies still tend to separate sustainability thinking from their innovation process. We need to break down this wall. Sustainability can be the impetus for innovation and idea generation.

The core engine of a company’s success is its ability to generate and implement new and valuable products, processes and approaches. By baking sustainability into the innovation process, firms are providing the fuel for their long-term success.

Q2. How will this research help companies weave innovation and sustainability together?

Answer: We’re taking a design thinking process (which has been used by award-winning innovation firms like Ideo for many years) and layering on a systems lens. A systems lens lets companies and researchers acknowledge the complexity and tensions that underlie sustainability. It provides frameworks and tools for developing and implementing sustainability solutions into the company’s existing innovation process.

This new method has been test-driven by researchers in Chile with impressive results. In one case, forestry firm Arauco worked through the process for a set of their business challenges. The innovations resulting from this process generated an estimated $1 billion in new value to the firm—plus benefits for society.

So, the results are compelling, but how does this actually work? Here’s an example. The first and most critical stage of the innovation process is defining the problem. The traditional way to define a problem might include cost, quality, and revenue dimensions. Systems thinking allows us to define problem more inclusively, focusing on the values and interests of different stakeholder groups and across different time frames. This broader definition can lead to the inclusion of new solutions that would never have been on the table.

In this project, we’ll work with companies to map their current innovation process, identify areas for high-leverage changes, and support them in working through the changes. This approach allows the companies maximum benefit from, and control of, their own ‘a-ha!’ moments.

Q3. Who will be involved in this work? 

Answer: The research team is partnering with companies such as 3M and consortia like the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance to undertake this project, leveraging the $2.5-million committed by the Government of Canada. There is an opportunity for a select number of additional firms to become involved in this exciting work – either intensively or in a ‘light touch’ way.

In addition to the core research team, we also have academic advisors from top universities across the world including Robert D. Austin and Fernando Olivera, also at Ivey, Carlos Orsorio (Adolfo Ibañez School of Management), and Andrew Van de Ven (University of Minnesota). Our efforts are fuelled by years of experience in multi sector collaborations, and supported by the staff members at the Network for Business Sustainability.

Q4. What distinguishes this research project from other research on innovation?

Answer: Two things. First, this project is a true collaboration between research and practice. As researchers, we are trained to be objective and maintain distance from the firms we study. But many successful researchers find that this distance is disingenuous—by asking questions and making observations, we will inevitably influence the firm’s actions.

So, instead of denying this involvement, we embrace it—and we’ve built the positive organizational changes that we catalyze right into the study design. This process, called engaged scholarship, is at the cutting edge of research design.

In this way, managers are equal partners in designing, implementing, and using the research findings. Such a tight link between research and practice ensures our collective efforts create real change inside and outside businesses.

Second, most research on innovation has either focused on business solutions to business problems, or sustainability solutions to sustainability problems. Sustainability problems are business problems, and vice versa. We recognize this upfront and think we’ve developed a better model – one that’s not a compromise between doing right by shareholders and doing right by stakeholders. It’s not a zero sum game anymore; businesses can transform the value they create for all stakeholders, in all directions

Q5. What’s the biggest benefit companies stand to get from this?

Answer: I’ve heard managers lament that they attend expensive seminars to learn cutting-edge frameworks, but once they are back in the productive chaos of their day-to-day work life, they struggle to apply those frameworks. The biggest benefit companies stand to gain is that our research team will work with you to study your innovation process, recommend changes, help implement changes—and then study how well those changes actually worked. At the end of the day, you’ll have a better innovation process.

A collaborative research process will also boost the company’s internal capacity for innovation through staff who’ve been able to interact with the research team, and who understand how sustainability and innovation work together in your organization.  Finally, this project is a direct opportunity for companies to have an impact on students and companies around the world. We have a growing team of PhD students and Postdoctoral Fellows who will build their research and collaboration skills by partnering with the companies. The generalized frameworks that we generate from this multi-year, multi-company project will help businesses across the world to improve their innovation process.

Each business involved in this project will be recognized as a partner of this work. They will be seen as an innovation and sustainability consortium that will become the springboard for sustainable innovation practices worldwide.

Q6. How can organizations get involved in the project or get updates?

Answer: If your company is interested in learning more, contact us. At this point, we have a few spaces available for additional partners. More spots will be come online over the next five years as the project expands.

We also publish regular updates on the NBS website, and in our newsletter. Sign up for our newsletter to stay informed.

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