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Top tips for sustainable innovators

24/02/2014

  • United Kingdom

Sustainable innovation needs to be anchored in the rethinking of current business models, and eco-innovators need to be prepared for a potentially “very bloody fight” with current market leaders, according to “10 key lessons” from the latest Sustainable Innovation conference organised by the Centre for Sustainable Design (CfSD).

The CfSD, based in the United Kingdom, has organised the annual Sustainable Innovation conference since 1995. It has become recognised as a leading forum on how companies can become more sustainable, and how products can be made with sustainability built in. Each year, the CfSD publishes key lessons from the annual conference, providing a snapshot of the current state of thinking about sustainable innovation.

According to the key lessons from the 2013 conference, which was held near London, “climate change, circular economy and eco-innovation are now being hardwired into future European industrial policy scenarios.” Companies need to incorporate consideration of these issues into their products and services. That means understanding the circular economy and making resource-efficient products that can be disassembled and recycled.

But there is also a surge of innovation coming from the bottom up, made easier by social networking, which facilitates the exchange of ideas. CfSD director Martin Charter points to grassroots initiatives such as hackspaces, community workshops where enthusiasts work on computing or other technologies. Innovations from such initiatives can ultimately filter up to the wider market.

The result of these trends is a challenge to traditional business models, and powerful companies might resist with “aggressive responses,” the CfSD warns. Innovators might face legal battles or obstacles to market access put in their way by incumbents.

However, says Charter, other incumbents understand the challenges and are keen to acquire knowledge and new ideas, potentially leading to partnerships or acquisitions. Car rental giant Avis purchased the car-sharing scheme Zipcar, for example.

The 2014 Sustainable Innovation conference, to be held in Copenhagen from 3-4 November, will build on these lessons. Charter says that the focus will be urban areas, the “democratisation of innovation and manufacturing” and the bottom-up “maker” and “fixer” culture, such as hackspaces. Charter says that “a lot of innovation does emerge in urban areas, initially on the margins,” and politicians and policy makers could encourage this with measures such as promoting ecodesign through green public procurement, or the provision of small grants to innovators so they can produce prototypes.