What Is Sustainable Innovation?

  • Written By: Yu Chen
  • Published On: April 9 2010



A recent press release from Dassault Systèmes about its newly signed strategic relationship with BMW in the area of sustainable innovation caught my attention and made me think of its meaning. As usual, I went to Wikipedia but found that this term didn’t exist. The closest term I could find was eco-innovation, which is related to sustainable innovation but not the same in my opinion. So here’s my own definition: sustainable innovation refers to the methodology and practices that lead to the increased capacity to endure within the environmental, societal, and economic surroundings that an organization operates through optimized and valuable changes that…okay, okay, I have to stop here since confusing you is not my objective. Let me simplify it: sustainable innovation means: 1) innovating toward sustainability; and 2) sustainable process for innovation. If this is still not clear, bear with me. I’ll provide a little more explanation.

Result-orientation: Innovating Toward Sustainability

First of all, innovations should be measured by the results that they generate. Besides bringing in more direct financial rewards through innovation, for-profit organizations should also measure the impact that innovations make to sustainability. Innovative efforts to increase sustainability may not directly contribute to profitability in a short-term view, but they are essential in order to keep companies competitive and seek future growth. Many companies may have already learned their lesson that going straight towards money doesn’t work so well nowadays. That being said, sustainable innovation is the approach a company can use in order to make changes that contributes to the goodness of the natural environment and society, in the mean time, the lasting profitability to those who conduct the changes.

Process-orientation: Sustainable Process for Innovations

Undoubtedly, there are uncertainties in innovative results, but I feel innovation as a process should be more certain, or in other words, more sustainable. Since “sustainable” is such a vague word, I’d like to expand it into three different adjectives.

Simple:  A lengthy or complicated innovation process will lead to missed opportunities or simply kill ideas (some might be highly valuable) in the cradle.

Repeatable: Although innovative results can be valuable because they make helpful differences, the process of making these distinctions shouldn’t be any different from time to time (or in other words, should be repeatable) so innovation is more manageable and the cost of innovation is minimized.

Flexible: A rigid process might be good for standardized tasks such as the ones being handled in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system but not so good for innovations, which highly rely on outside-the-box thinking and knowledge collaboration.

For manufacturers, product lifecycle management (PLM) can help improve your sustainable innovations not only by its functionality (such as material and regulatory compliance for product sustainability from the result perspective and new product development and introduction [NPDI] from the process perspective) but also the PLM methodology that recommends a life cycle perspective in your innovation efforts. For non-manufacturers, even though you may not find a PLM system available on the market, the methodology part should still be useful.
 
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