Systematic Review: Innovating for Sustainability

Systematic Review: Innovating for Sustainability

Research on sustainability innovation by Richard Adams reveals three stages: operational optimization, organizational transformation, and systems building.
NBS December 16, 2012
Systematic Review
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What innovation activities make companies sustainable?

Practitioners at leading Canadian organizations asked NBS: “How can sustainability drive innovation (and vice-versa) within companies?”

Leaders at these organizations understand they must adopt more sustainable practices to maintain their social licence to operate – let alone thrive. The ability to innovate in the domain of sustainability is therefore a key factor in their success. These forward-thinking leaders asked NBS whether Sustainability-Oriented Innovation (SOI) differed from more traditional forms of innovation – and if it does differ: "What practices distinguish sustainability innovation from traditional innovation?"

NBS selected Richard Adams of the University of Exeter to conduct a systematic review of the academic and industry literature on sustainability innovation. With direction from a Guidance Committee comprising academic and industry experts, Adams and his research team analyzed 127 academic and industry sources – from an initial scan of more than 4,000 articles.

Download the full 100+ page Systematic Review, "Innovating for Sustainability," for an in-depth look at the research project. A condensed version of the systematic review is available as an Executive Report.

Research Reveals 3 Stages of Innovation

The research revealed three stages of sustainability innovation: “Operational Optimization," “Organizational Transformation” and “Systems Building." Firms can innovate toward sustainability through a series of small incremental steps or through more radical, disruptive transformations. Which stage a firm occupies depends on three factors:
  1. Whether the focus of the innovation is insular (i.e. firm-focused) or systemic (inclusive of stakeholders outside the firm)
  2. Whether the innovation is technical (e.g. new products) or socio-technical (benefiting people)
  3. Whether the innovation is stand-alone (i.e. within a single department or team) or integrated throughout the firm
Categories of Innovation
Answering managers' original question, the research team catalogued 38 practices for fostering innovation across the three stages. Examples of innovation practices that support sustainability includes: 
Richard Adams, Management Professor, University of Exeter & Lead Author, "Innovating for Sustainability" Systematic Review

Downloads

Executive Report
Click to download
Systematic Review
Click to download

Additional Resources

Executive Report

What innovation activities help companies become sustainable? This report outlines 38 innovation practices that drive sustainability.

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Reports and Articles

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Research Insight

Use the following eight strategies to design products and services that are more environmentally and socially responsible.

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Video

Tima Bansal reveals preliminary findings from management researcher Richard Adams on sustainability-oriented innovation and outlines its three stages.

NBS