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Sustainability-driven Innovation - As Innovation without sustainability considerations at its heart

Over the past year I have had the pleasure of convening the three workshops that formed the first phase of the SusIN Lab, an initiative of the Business School of the University of Exeter, and am now in the final phases of pulling together an exciting conference, hosted by Ordnance Survey at their headquarters near Southampton. This conference concludes the first phase, which was generously sponsored by the University, and is hopefully the beginning of a second, self-funded phase.

Why do I consider myself lucky to have had this opportunity and feel so passionately about sustainability-driven innovation? As someone who comes from the field of innovation I have come to the conclusions that innovation without sustainability considerations at its core is becoming increasingly irresponsible. Our one planet with so many of its resources finite demands we take notice of this, as does the irrefutable fact that our ambition has to be to offer the 9 billion anticipated for 2050 a worthwhile life. Innovation and sustainability belong together, there is no doubt in my mind. Yet in most organisations these two movements seem to have different homes; they are being driven and looked after by different people - or is this different in your organisation? Sustainability, understood as taking into consideration an organisation’s impact on planet (environment) and people (society) as well as its profit (economy), is a new and emerging discipline. More often than not it seems to be coming out of the philanthropy / corporate social responsibility corner. Innovation activities are separate, most likely to be owned by marketing or R&D, depending on industry context.

Our struggles with embedding innovation into organisations’ DNA have already created an awareness of the importance of diversity. Indeed, diversity is the heart-blood of innovation: bringing together everyone touched or affected by the innovation, at the outset, is a critical factor in finding the best possible solutions as well as getting wide acceptance once the innovation is introduced. We are starting to begin to find ways to work with people who are ‘not like us’ and with whom we therefore often struggle.

In the context of sustainability the net needs to be case even wider if we are to succeed. Where it was different departments, customers and suppliers in the case of innovation, in the case of sustainability we need different sectors, different industries, players from different countries to come together if we are to find solutions that are sustainable, for profit, planet and people, in the long run.

This is why the SusIN Lab is such a valuable initiative; it provides the kind of open and low risk space that is necessary to start charting thew new territory that sustainability-driven innovation constitutes; the Lab allows us to explore, experiment, understand and engage, and develop the tools, approaches and techniques necessary to support the kind of collaboration that is the key to creating a sustainable future.

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