Innovation and sustainability - contradictory or compatible

John W Lewis's picture
Chat Date: 
Thu, Feb 04, 2016

As the USA looks forward to the Super Bowl 50 on this coming weekend, (and many people in the rest of the world wonder what all the fuss is about!), the relationship between innovation and sustainability arises in connection with the Levi's Stadium where the game is to be played.

A topical Forbes magazine article "Super Bowl 50: Leading Innovation At Levi's Stadium"  kicks off by describing the San Francisco 49ers' venue as "the new $1.2 billion award-winning stadium, known for its innovations in both tech and sustainability practices."

How are sustainability and innovation related?

On one hand, innovation involves change, whereas sustainability involves practices that are maintainable for long periods into the future. So sustainablility and innovation appear to be contradictory.

On the other hand, the transition from unsustainable to sustainable practices often involves substantial innovation.

Mainstreaming sustainability

Taking another view of sustainability, a few years ago when I mentioned that my area of interest was innovation, an architect who is interested in sustainable building asked: "Let me know when you've figured out how to mainstream sustainability."

My immediate thought was not that these are contradictory, in fact they are likely to be automatically compatible. If a practice is sustainable, then it can be maintained for a long time into the future. On the basis of a "survival of the fittest" approach, it is therefore almost inevitable that the practices adopted by the mainstream are sustainable.

Sustainability = Innovation?

Back in 2009, the Harvard Business Review published an article "Why Sustainability Is Now the Key Driver of Innovation" which asserted that:

"There’s no alternative to sustainable development"

and described five stages through which organizations transition as they embrace sustainable solutions:

  1. Viewing Compliance as Opportunity
  2. Making Value Chains Sustainable
  3. Designing Sustainable Products and Services
  4. Developing New Business Models
  5. Creating Next-Practice Platforms

The article concluded with:

"Leadership and talent are critical for developing a low-carbon economy. The current economic system has placed enormous pressure on the planet while catering to the needs of only about a quarter of the people on it, but over the next decade twice that number will become consumers and producers. Traditional approaches to business will collapse, and companies will have to develop innovative solutions. That will happen only when executives recognize a simple truth: Sustainability = Innovation."

So that's a clear conclusion! But do we think that it's true?


Let's discuss the relationship between innovation and sustainability during #innochat on Thursday February 4th, 2016 starting at 12 noon Eastern time, based on these questions:

  1. In what ways are innovation and sustainability compatible?
  2. In what ways are innovation and sustainability contradictory?
  3. How does the need for sustainable solutions lead to increased innovation?
  4. How does the adoption of sustainable solutions reduce the need for innovation?
  5. Is an increasing rate of innovation sustainable, or is it a phase we are going through?


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