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October 24, 2006 | Andrew Winston | Jump to: Comments (0) | Post A Comment

Sustainable Innovation (Part I) and "Radical Incrementalism"

Yesterday I spoke at the Sustainable Innovation ‘06 Conference, which was thrown by the Centre for Sustainable Design in England and hosted by the Stuart School of Business in Chicago. The attendees were a mix of designers, business people, and government folks. My talk was about the context for business, the imperative to innovate to solve our environmental challenges, and some of the reasons innovation may fail (such as creating a new greener product that nobody actually needs or ignoring the real needs of the customer — e.g., a small example like McDonald’s attempt to give customers coffee mugs, which would save many paper cups. But the company discovered that customers were really buying more than just a cup of joe; they wanted mobility — the ability to walk out or drive through).

Here are 3.5 tidbits and takeaways from some other presentations:

1) Incremental change is quick, radical change is slow. It’s much harder to change entire industries or consumer practices in large ways — it usually takes decades. This fascinating insight, which has a ‘duh’ quality to it (like all smart ideas you didn’t think of), came from Fred Steward, Director of the ESRC Sustainable Technologies Programme at Brunel University in the UK. If this idea is true, we’re in trouble. Some environmental problems, namely climate change, are evolving too quickly for us to wait decades. Business, markets, consumer, and governments will need to innovate much faster than perhaps every before. One partial solution is what Fred referred to as “radical incrementalism” — for example, current hydrogen bus tests are small, but could lead to a whole new infrastructure, or “regime change.”

1.5) Innovation can take a long timeJohn Bradford from Interface Flooring described the process they went through to develop an alternative to the toxic, messy glues used to put flooring down. Five years later, they hit on a seemingly obvious use of tape squares called “Tac-Tiles.” You put a small square down at every carpet tile intersection and then gravity does the rest in terms of holding the carpet in place on the floor (basically there’s no way walking will shift a carpet). The result is a solution that drastically reduces the need for adhesives (90+% less). This story reminded me a great deal of the 3M Post-its example we give in Green to Gold, which involved a 6-year development time on a new adhesive.

2) Governments can innovate too Chicago’s Commissioner of the Department of Environment, Sadhu Johnston described some of their efforts to green the city (Mayor Daley has said that he wants Chicago to be one of the most sustainable cities in the world). One interesting program is expedited permits for buildings that are greener. The city is issuing some permits in 30 days instead of 70-100. That’s two months green businesses can save on time to market.

3) You can turn your innovation inward David Douglas from Sun Microsystems described the company’s telecommuting/flex-place initiative. Using its own “thin-client” servers and other technologies, Sun has been able to free its employees up from coming to a specific office. Nearly 15,000 employees (46%) have enrolled in the program which eliminates a permanent space and allows them to work wherever they want. Sun’s operations in Germany have cut office space by over 80%. The company has saved $64 million in real estate costs. Not to mention energy, commuting environmental impacts, and so on.

More tidbits to come…


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