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First Things First: 4 Ways to Unearth Ideas for Sustainable Innovation

Image credit: Matt Henry / Shopify Burst

Most Sustainable Brands readers will know that 22nd April is Earth Day, but did you also know that the 21st is World Creativity and Innovation Day? I’ve always been amazed at how little the sustainability community focuses on idea generation and creativity. With all of today’s focus on business models, collaboration, systems thinking and other strategies, we can often neglect the importance of getting good ideas.

Many other disciplines — Innovation Managers, Product Strategists or creative industries such as Advertising or Design — have livelihoods built on creating and exploiting good ideas. They have conferences, websites, methodologies and other platforms to grow and improve; regularly exercising and building their idea-generation muscles. That why I’ve decided to celebrate these two events by sharing my sustainable innovation toolkit.

Why ideas matter to sustainability

Ideas and creativity are essential for moving us beyond the business-as-usual approach of creeping incrementalism, towards the breakthroughs and disruptions needed for sustainability. Getting good ideas is obviously not the same as innovating — which requires many others steps and aspects — but getting the front end right is where it all starts.

In his Little Black Book of Innovation, Scott Anthony wrote, “your first idea is almost always wrong. And you can’t figure out precisely how it is wrong through analysis alone.” Scott and other innovation practitioners advocate following some form of systematic innovation process. Ideas start to crystallise at the ‘fuzzy front-end’ of this (also known as Stage 0) and ironically, we know that these very early stages are where the main sustainability elements are built in or designed out. So ideas really are everything in sustainable innovation; which begs the question of how we get better at getting them?

Tools for more sustainable ideas

My own innovation work has two principles as the backbone for idea generation:

  1. Great ideas always come from good stimulus: You can’t magic ideas out of nowhere, it is great stimulus and research that triggers them.
  2. Ideas can come from anywhere: Don’t over-rely on a single technique — such as data analysis or focus groups — use two or more research tools to ensure wide-ranging inputs.

Built on these foundations, I use a suite of tools to inspire better and more sustainable ideas in projects. Here I will introduce four tools, rather than the full toolkit, with the hope that they may be useful to others:

#1: User research

Human-centeredness is an important trend in innovation in recent years that could be more widely used for sustainability. It means really getting to know users and customers; asking, do you know how or why people are behaving inefficiently in buildings; or why they choose, use or misuse certain products wastefully around the home?

One great, everyday example of how users inspire ideas comes from this blog, recommending how to freeze minced meat in small portions with a chopstick. Here, the user has removed the product (minced meat) into a different pack format (ziplock bag), then made her own portion sizes (with a chopstick), which simultaneously increases the product life (by storing in the freezer) while improving portion control (break off a square of minced meat to cook the ideal amount) — both of which could reduce the 34,000 tons of meat wasted here in the UK each year.

The user is basically compensating for the inadequacies of the product-pack, yet this type of insight can be gold dust for a packaging innovator looking for new ideas — an amazing trigger for innovation.

#2: Futures

Futures techniques are a great way to explore how todays emerging social and environmental pressures may play out in the long-term, and what risks and opportunities these may present for brands. Influential nonprofit Forum for the Future is one of the best exponents of futures techniques for sustainability. It has used scenarios to develop sustainability strategy with PepsiCo, Kimberly-Clark, Swire Group and more; developing trends for the packaging and fashion sectors; creating ideas and visions for new electronic products and services, and open-sourcing its tools for others to use.

Futures methods include scenarios, forecasts, backcasting, visions, trends and horizon scanning, all of which can map new opportunities in which an innovator stands in the future and drag the present towards you.

#3: Metrics and measurement

Perhaps the most widely used sustainable innovation tools are metrics, measurement and assessments. Understanding your ‘material’ impacts is ground zero for improving and innovating around them. Life Cycle Assessment, carbon footprints and environmental benchmarks, amongst other things, have proved crucial to sustainable innovation.

I worked on one sustainable innovation project looking at the lifecycle impacts of dairy products. This highlighted an area of waste created during the manufacturing stage of desserts production, caused by a growing number of small runs of flavour variants, whose ingredients would often go to waste as they were purchased in bulk. One project partner, Yeo Valley, used this insight to develop and launch Left Yeovers — a yoghurt that used surplus ingredients that would otherwise go to waste.

Analysing the dairy lifecycle unearthed this important insight and was instrumental in this innovative product development, showing how measurement and metrics can be a powerful tool for new ideas.

#4: Parallel examples

A lot of breakthrough innovation comes from borrowing an idea, solution or technology from an analogous example or parallel category. Modern incubators providing life-saving services to premature babies were inspired by 18th-century incubation technology used to hatch chicken eggs, and then developed in 19th-century Paris. Leading innovators IDEO famously improved hospital emergency room procedures by borrowing from Nascar pit stops to increase efficiency and synchronisation. Prototypes for my own work to develop technology to more efficiently recycle waste paint borrowed kit from food (suction) and chemical (wormscrew) waste handling.

In his seminal work, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson names this ‘the adjacent possible’ where “good ideas are built out of a collection of existing parts, both literally and metaphorically speaking”; and practically speaking, this usually sees an innovator inspired by spotting someone doing something similar somewhere else.

Taking your next creative step

These are some (though not all) of the tools I use for sustainability-led idea generation. Others, such as ‘Encouraging Serendipity,’ ‘Tech Scouting’ or ‘Ridiculous Goals,’ are for another blog. If your sustainability ideas feel flat, or if you are unclear on a sustainability opportunity, why not plug one or more of these methods into your project.

There is much to gain from connecting sustainability and creativity to help us get better ideas. Next year, perhaps we should celebrate the Earth Day and World Creativity and Innovation on the same day.


Chris Sherwin is Director at reboot innovation, a consultancy on a mission to change what and how we innovate - making them fit for a sustainable world [Read more about Chris Sherwin]


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