What’s the Purpose of Innovation?

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Hello again !

I ended the previous mailout with the following questions,

“Why do we innovate?  And how do we innovate? How do we use our amazing abilities to create and shape, to shape our future? Is what we are currently creating the future we want for our children’s children?”

To give you the short-hand version of the answers:

  • Why do we innovate? While ‘making money’ might be the first one thing that comes to mind I believe that, ultimately, we innovate to create a future.
  • How do we innovate? To be quite blunt, more often than not, it seems rather haphazard, and ignoring any unintended consequences, particularly those of the long term variety. We should innovate in a way that has sustainability (not in the sense of ‘ongoing and repeatable’ but in the sense of the triple bottom line) and creating a worthwhile future at its core.
  • How do we use our amazing abilities to create and shape, to shape our future? Not very well, it seems.  We seem to create more innovations that have the potential to destroy our future (and planet) than those that help to sustain it. Instead we should use our amazing abilities to address the huge challenges humanity and our planet face.
  • Is what we are currently creating the future we want for our children’s children? I most certainly hope not!  In fact, I seem to have been wiser in my younger years when I thought I should not have children as it felt irresponsible in the face of the conditions we have created on our planet. Given that so many of us have children, it is our responsibility to create a future they can look forward to.

Of course, one can always give up with the argument that it is all a bit late now, and these issues are too big for any of us to tackle.  Yet as very clever Molière said, “It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.”

The following is for those who are not happy with where we are headed, and are willing – or even determined – to do something about it.  Luckily there are more and more of us! What gives me the confidence to say that?  For the past 6 years I have been involved in an organisation called Katerva [www.katerva.net] whose purpose it is to ‘identify, evaluate and accelerate sustainable disruptive innovation’.  The means by which Katerva aims to achieve this is its awards program,  where ideas are collected in 10 different buckets – from Behaviour Change, Energy & Power, Gender Equality to Smart Cities (these buckets build on the 17 sustainable development goals [link]). As Director of Awards Program, as which I have served since autumn 2015, I have the great privilege to witness the amazing solutions people come up with to address our challenges, the passion and determination with which they pursue their goals, and the impact that is solely starting to be felt. Below our 2018 Category Winners and Finalists (By the way, this is also the reason why my regular mailouts become increasingly irregular!)

Katerva’s 2018 Category Winners
Winnow – Technology that cuts food waste in half and boosts kitchen profitability.Other Finalists: Bags of Taste; Drought Prediction Tool; Educate Me; Fightthestroke; Kiron Open Higher Education; Saliva-powered battery; Seriti by Share Me Studio; Stevie the Robot; Stitch
Fundación Capital – Facilitates partnerships between governments and financial institutions to provide inclusive financial services and social programs.Other Finalists: AID Tech; BanQu; Bridg; FORSA; GreenCake; Khdemti; MetroCredit; YamarkExpress; Young Professionals for Agricultural Development
Solar Reserve – Molten salt tower receiver with integrated thermal energy storage.Other Finalists: Global Supply Solutions; Greenway Smart Stove; Karmsolar; LuminAID; Microbial Fuel Cell; Partheon Seawall; SEaB Energy; SOLshare; Sustainable Alternative Lighting
Afforest for Future – A unique methodology for desert greening and on its Artificial Intelligence algorithms.Other Finalists: Climeworks; Flow Hive; Frozen Zoo; Full Cycle Bioplastics; HiveMind Bioremediation; Land for Life: Inga Alley-Cropping; Mestic®; SafetyNet Technologies; Skymining
Protix – Insects as a sustainable source for protein.Other Finalists: Agribody Technologies; Finless Foods; Full Harvest Technologies; Hydroponics Kenya; Nambu; Saline-Tolerant Vegetable Cultivation; Solar Food; String Bio; Urban Food Street
DoctHERs – Using Tech to reintegrate marginalized women into the workforce.Other Finalists: Lead; Mechanical CPAP device (Saans); Sustain Natural; The Barter Bank
The Victoria Hand Project – Improving quality of life and increase their access to employment opportunities.Other Finalists: 3D integumentary organ system; BEMPU Hypothermia Alert Bracelet; Biosynthesis of fungal antibiotics; Field Ready; Immunotherapy Patch; MedicSen; Myocardial regeneration; Shoe that Grows; Transcriptic
GEOCEMENT – New environment friendly cement, based on geopolymer technology.Other Finalists: Desolenator; Energy generating Wood Floor; FREDsense chemical detection platform; Kiverdi; Nanobionic Light-emitting Plant; Ocean Well; SafetyNet Technology; Warka Water; Water Pearls; WaterSeer
Waste4Think – Smart technologies to move from the current urban waste management systems to a circular economy model.Other Finalists: AirFabric by Insyab; ARKUP LIVABLE YACHTS; bGrid; DiamondSquare PopUp Park; ECOTEN Urban Comfort; Eternal Weave Techonolgy; noMad – Autonomous Assembly; Pod Vending Machine; Urban Algae Clad
AirGo Design – The world’s first full-composite aircraft seatOther Finalists: Adgero; BikeSeeker; Blink; Einride T-Pod; Loop; Reducing harmful gas emissions; Vaporization Energy

So how to go about it? A very simple yet effective approach would be to follow an extended version of the Golden Rule which states,

Treat others, and the planet, as you would wish to be treated.

Those who know this rule, which seems to exist in all religions and geographies in some shape or form, will notice the insertion of “and the planet”. Indeed, if all of us would follow just this rule, different decisions would be made, and our planet would be in much better shape. To achieve the goal that more and more of us – individuals, corporations, governments – live by this rule, Kim Polman founded Reboot the Future. The mission of Reboot the Future reads,  “Through the pathway of the Golden Rule, our mission is to inspire, unite and hold to account leaders and every one of us to build an increasingly compassionate and sustainable world.” To explore what this pathway might look like, Kim Polman, together with Stephen Vasconcellos-Sharpe, invited 25 of the world’s most respected leaders and thinkers to build potential roadmaps across business and government, based on understanding the potential power of the Golden Rule. You can read the results of this exploration in Imaginal Cells – Visions of Transformation, a beautiful and insightful book with contributions from Desmond Tutu, Al Gore, Jonathan Porritt and former CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman (the shared surname is no coincidence ;-). Noteworthy, Paul was the first to have the courage to move away from quarterly reporting to create a corporate culture oriented more towards the long term and sustainability.

Purpose – is it worth it?

Unilever was at the avant-garde of organisations seeking purpose beyond shareholder. In a 2016 report EY defined purpose as “an aspirational reason for being that is grounded in humanity and which inspires a call to action” elaborating  that, “Purpose galvanises people to ignite long-lasting positive change, driving growth and innovation.” They argued further that organisations that embody purpose see significant, measurable results in terms of retaining their best  employee, attraction, retaining and engaging their customers, AND increasing return for shareholders.
You can find further debate in an  2019 Financial Times article.

While abiding by the extended Golden Rule alone could be enough, it might still be helpful to have a few frameworks and reference points to get going.  Here are some that I found particularly helpful.

The first is Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. Much of our past behaviour has been driven by the belief that we have access to limitless resource, and that these would facilitate limitless growth.  Today we know better.  At the same time we, particularly those in the developed world, cannot stand up and demand that everyone should constrain their resource consumption. From where we start it is relatively easy, from where developing countries start it is rather difficult!  Hence it is good to on one hand understand what the boundaries and limits from an environmental and planetary perspective are, and on the other, what the minimum requirements from a human, social perspective are.  This is exactly what Kate’s Doughnut Economics do.  I can highly recommend her book – which I listened to, read by her, on the treadmill in the gym (what used to be a 30 minute slog became a pleasure!).

It is my great pleasure to share that Kate has set up a competition for thoughts on “What’s the 8th Way to Think Like a 21st Century Economist?” Have a look at her website, submission deadline is the 12th April 2019.

Secondly, the move towards sustainability is a journey and not achieved by flicking a switch.  A framework I found helpful here has been developed by Canada-based Network for Sustainable Business which was developed as part of research into what is currently actually happening around sustainability driven innovation today – not what could or should, but what is, the evidence.

The framework observes a three-level approach to achieving sustainability-driven innovation, and these three levels generally coincide with a progressive timeline:

  1. Operational Optimisation – is fundamentally about doing what we are doing better; it is about compliance, efficiency and reducing resource consumption.
  2. Organisational Transformation – is about developing new market opportunities through new products and services; it is about doing good by doing good things; it is also about creating some shared values and can even be about changing what we are about.
  3. Systems Building – is based on the realisation that no single enterprise will be able to truly change things; this is about changing networks, changing up and down the supply chain and becoming net positive.

You can access the report here.

Thirdly, true sustainability – with the ability to self-perpetuate in the long run – cannot be achieved without meaningfully, consciously and consistently balancing all the aspects of the triple bottom line: People, Planet, Profit, also know as the3Ps.  However, it is important that nothing is going to change unless individuals – the Person – starts to think and act differently.  Hence my wise and inspiring friend and colleague Dorothea Ernst, formerly Senior Director Sustainability at Philips Corporate Technologies, has added Person as the fourth P.

I we are to think and act differently, what principles might guide such thinking and acting?  I can recommend the four principles of Natural Capitalism, a concept first publicised in 1999 by authors  Paul Hawken, Amroy Lovins and Hunter Lovins. What are characteristics of the mindset that can get us there? Four questions we should ask ourselves when ever making a decision:

  • The resources I use, am I using them to their fullest potential?
  • How does / would nature solve this problem?
  • How can we create a business model that incentivises using less rather than more – a shift from offering products to offering services is a key tactic here.
  • In what natural resources do we need to re-invest in order to maintain nature’s balance and ensure future access to these resources?
Radical Resource productivity – Which ever resources you use, make sure to get most out of them. I cannot resist drawing on nominees from the Katerva Awards to illustrate these principles (and the following). Nebia, who was Katerva’s winner of the Materials, Resources and Water category in 2015, have developed a showerhead that atomises water, thereby creating more surface which enables the user to experience an exhilarating shower while using 70% less water.
Another interesting example of doing more with less is AeroFarms who have developed a highly resource efficient approach to indoor vertical farming. Compared to field farming they use 95% less water,  no pesticides at all, and uses less than 1% of the land required by conventional growing.

Biomimicry – which I have raved about many a time before is all about learning from nature, with the argument that the designs we find in nature were perfected over 3.8 billion years. Surely, there must be something we can learn from it.  While it has started in product related areas, we are now beginning to look out for lessons we can learn for leadership and collaboration Friend of the ILF, Denise deLuca has been at the forefront of this, and also offers a 4-hour online course that introduces you to biomimicry. You may also want to listen to this podcast with Beth Rattner and Natasha Hulst of the Biomimicry Institute, in which they dig into how biomimicry can be applied to the world around us.

An example from Katerva’s 2019 nominee pool is Denmark-based Aquaporin which has developed a groundbreaking technology that purifies water by mimicking nature. They use Aquaporins, crucial for life in all organisms – bacteria, plants, humans – which allows water molecules to rapidly pass a membrane while rejecting all other compounds.

Service & Flow Economy – which is about a shift from products to services. Back in 1994 Interface founder Ray Anderson decided that his company would become “the first fully sustainable industrial enterprise, anywhere.” Realising that people want to use and see carpets but not necessarily own them has led Interface to sell the service of providing carpeted floors, rather than carpets. Monthly inspections identify and replace tiles that are worn out. This leads to a 35-fold reduction in the flow of materials needed to maintain a carpet covered floor.

(Re-)Invest in Natural Capital – which is all about ensuring, if we take something from nature, we replace it in some shape or form.  For example, Afforest for Future, the 2018 Katerva Award winner in the Environment category, is is working to reverse desertification. For one of their projects  they use patent-pending technology to sustainably and easily transport the mud from man-made lakes and use it as a top soil to plant desert native trees.


If you look for further inspiration I can recommend the website and LinkedIn posts of the World Economic Forum, and of course to sign up to the Katerva newsletter ;-).

If you’d like to go a step further and delve into ‘proper’ education, universities in Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Germany India, Israel, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland as well as the UK and US offer MBAs with a focus on sustainability – have a look at the wikipedia entry.  Interestingly I also found an article asking “Is a green MBA worth your time and money?” To my delight and relief the author concludes, “And what if, after doing your research, you decide a green MBA is the way to go? Take heart in knowing you’ve likely made a sound decision.”

One thing is very clear for me: sustainability has to become the yardstick against which innovation is measured.  Anything else is absolutely irresponsible.


Final Comment

Even if the result of much innovation has the potential to do more harm than good, I believe the drive behind constantly seeking to improve things, to innovate, is the desire to create a better future for your children. We generally measure our success on this count in life expectancy, education, and how much ‘stuff’ we have.  As at least the ‘stuff’ aspect cannot continue on existing trajectories, it is just as well that another aspect of a ‘better life’ is attraction people attention – World Economic Forum, Governments and Corporations alike: Wellbeing. This will be the topic for the next mailout.

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