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Systematic Review: Innovating for Sustainability

Research on sustainability innovation by Richard Adams reveals three stages: operational optimization, organizational transformation, and systems building.

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

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:

  • “Back-casting”

  • Collaborating with universities and colleges

  • Product servitization

  • “Designing green first”

  • Jugaad, frugal and reverse innovation“Sustainability-oriented innovation is not just about the successful commercialization of new ideas (one popular definition of innovation). It is made more complex by the need to incorporate environmental and social considerations.”

Richard Adams, Management Professor, University of Exeter & Lead Author, “Innovating for Sustainability” Systematic Review


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  • NBS

    The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) is a non-profit advancing sustainable development to build a fairer and more environmentally sound future. We aim to improve business practice by facilitating knowledge sharing across an international community of business leaders, scholars, students and policy makers. With these stakeholders, we co-create high-quality content that enables practical action. Our content focuses on 6 critical sustainability themes, from climate change to social justice.

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