Innovating for Sustainability Transitions: Disruptive Innovation or Discontinuous Innovation?

Disruptive innovation has become a chewing gum in the mouths of the CEOs of small and big companies. Everyone wants to be a “disruptor” regardless of their market positioning or innovation approach. Unfortunately, disruptive innovation has also become a buzzword haunting the theoretical, practice-relevant and practical work of design and innovation academics who can be broadly placed in the field of system innovations and transitions for sustainability. I am not intending to argue against the general usefulness and relevance of the term within the mainstream management theory and practice. Instead I’d like to argue against its use in the context of system innovations and transitions for sustainability and propose that we use “discontinuous innovation” instead. The following paragraphs have a go at why.

The term “disruptive innovation” was coined by Clayton Christensen in his seminal book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” in 1997 (Christensen, 1997). Hoping to avoid any injustice to the intricacies of his theory, my simplified understanding of Christensen’s use of disruptive innovation puts emphasis on business model innovation (i.e. organizational innovation) by adoption and use of new technologies for offering new products/services that’ll meet the anticipated needs of users instead of focusing on meeting the current needs as an innovation strategy. This we understand as design researchers and practitioners very well albeit implement only occasionally. One could argue even, the whole premise of the non-diluted version of design thinking movement is based on this approach to innovation. If you’re not inclined to read Christensens book but would like to develop your understanding based on primary source, Harvard Business Review has an article in this month’s issue (Christensen, Raynor &McDonald, 2015) (in which the authors complain about the misuse of the term and how it has been made meaningless – just like what happened to “sustainability” and “resilience in the hands of greenwashers and whitewashers).

The theory of disruptive innovation is very relevant to system innovations and transitions as it explains how niche innovations can become successful and take over the incumbents (at least within the dominant economic paradigm). Nevertheless, the emphasis is on single companies and the “disruption” is not necessarily disruption at the level of socio-technical systems. The chances of a particular disruptive innovation being a significant factor –a core cause- in systemic transformations at the level of socio-technical systems is low, although, considered within the dynamics of a socio-technical system, one disruptive innovation may trigger a series of changes over time that could eventually add up to a systemic transformation. Disruptive innovation theory is somewhat congruous to the multi-level model of system innovation and these two could be integrated for a better leveraging of the niche-level. I’ll leave thinking of potential alignments of two theories to another time and move on.

Discontinuous innovation, although also a management buzzword, hasn’t made the mark disruptive innovation has, perhaps because no Harvard professor has yet written a book about it. According to the “lexicon” of the Financial Times, discontinuous innovation and radical innovation are synonymous and point to: “a paradigm shift in science or technology and/or the market structure of an industry”. Garcia and Calantone (2002), on the other hand, provide a more nuanced explanation and articulate that discontinuous innovations may be radical innovations or really new innovations depending on which level they influence (firm and the customer, i.e. micro, or the world or whole industry and market, i.e. macro) and whether they affect marketing or technology S-curves or both. According to them, radical innovations create discontinuity both at micro- and at macro-levels as well as embody new technologies and create new markets. On the other hand really new innovations create either technological or marketing discontinuity at macro- level and at micro-level they may create either or both (see table below). So, in this typology, the most common yet least acknowledged type of innovation –really new innovation- becomes visible and better articulated in terms of discontinuity.

Garcia_et_al-2002-Journal_of_Product_Innovation_Management

From Garcia and Calantone (2002, p. 121)

Nevertheless, the problem with innovation typologies developed in management and engineering disciplines perceives the world of innovation to consist of two dynamics, i.e. market and technology, and as only taking place in firms. When we talk about system innovations and transitions on the other hand, we include innovations in socio-cultural and politico-organisational contexts (i.e. individual and group behavior, business model, governance model, institutional set-up) and several other actors in addition to firms. Therefore, framing discontinuity in system innovations with a narrow set of parameters and with references to only one actor is not sufficient, however, the strength of the concept of discontinuous innovation as understood in mainstream theory comes from its acknowledgement of the contextual changes that an innovation may create in addition to changes within the organizational boundaries where the innovation took place. For this reason, discontinuous innovation as a concept is more promising in terms of being able to take into account the complex dynamics of socio-technical systems.

Another reason for discontinuous innovation to be the preferred term in the context of system innovations and transitions is the implicational alignment of the concept of discontinuity with the required level of change for socio-technical systems to become sustainable (which is often referred to as “radical”) and the methodologies used in identifying the practical interventions necessary (mostly visioning and scenario development work to identify policy development and/or R&D investment requirements). I am hoping to write another post on creating imaginaries of discontinuities using these futures inquiry approaches in the near future.

References I cited in this post:

Christensen, C. M. (1997). The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Christensen, C. M., Raynor, M., & McDonald, R. (2015). What is disruptive innovation? Harvard Business Review, 93(12), 44-53.

Garcia, R., & Calantone, R. (2002). A critical look at technological innovation typology and innovativeness terminology: a literature review. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 19(2), 110-132. doi: 10.1111/1540-5885.1920110

 

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Convergent Conversations – Transformational Grief, “The Infinite Game” and Love

I spent the past week in Auckland on off-site academic duty commissioned by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) to evaluate two interconnected degree programs on game development. I also gave a public lecture on Visions and Pathways 2040 project at Transforming Cities Research Cluster of University of Auckland. NZQA duty was full-on yet straightforward; a great first experience which gave me insights on how the big machine of academic institution works from an evaluator’s perspective. Around thirty people attended the public lecture from universities and the Auckland Council. Besides being a fruitful exercise of academic networking, it did not yield to anything spectacular worthy to report apart from an observation that systemic research approaches like VP2040 is still rare and disciplinary conservatism mostly prevails across the board.

Besides these “business”, I also had a chance to catch-up and have conversations with several people who are both parts of my professional network but also friends and inspirers of my work on the general topic of sustainability transitions. What made my trip worthwhile were these one-to-one, over-the-coffee/food/beer conversations which touched upon several themes that I’ve been mulling over for a while. Some of the conversations were continuation of previous conversations I had with these people both online and offline over the past few years. Some also echoed conversations I’ve been independently having with people I recently met here in Melbourne as well as with members of my international network indicating an increasingly converging grand narrative underlying the emerging sustainability transitions.

Following the news by NASA a few weeks ago which confirmed the decline of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet as irreversible, my friend Maya posted a Facebook status update stating her desire to weep accompanied by other signs of despair and asked her friends “how will we live on this world?”. I met Maya through a common friend seven years ago. She has a consultancy called Mind Balance where she offers, among other services, workshops on mindfulness meditation. During my PhD years Maya and I used to catch up over coffee and have long, fascinating conversations about what’s happening to the world and what should be done to create change. My head-heavy contributions about system innovation at technological, organisational, institutional and socio-cultural levels were complemented by her insights and knowledge on becoming and staying present, being self-aware and mindful and how spirituality connects with systemic transformations. I always found conversing with her very refreshing; they unlocked the shackle of my analytical brain. Maya has always represented calmness and groundedness for me, therefore, seeing her in such despair was very unusual. For that reason, my contribution to responses given to her was a call to overcome grief and despair to be able to think and strategise: “Although I fully understand the need for grief, we cannot let ourselves get lost in despair. This is a time for big change and the question is how we will prepare for what’s likely to unfold from now. Adaptation comes with a whole new set of questions on “how” which needs to be articulated in all of its dimensions; ethical, political, spiritual, technological and organisational.” In retrospect, I realised my response on that day to Maya wasn’t empathic enough.

Not long after this interaction with Maya, Gary, one of the executives of the Auckland Permaculture Workshop sent the other APW executives and collaborators including me an email asking our opinions on including models of the grieving process in APW course material with references to dealing with the idea of and getting prepared for potential unavoidable collapse. He particularly referred to the Kübler-Ross model which explains grief as a five stage process of passing through phases of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Gary and I, as well as another APW executive Finn met in Auckland last Friday. Among other topics of common interest –Gary is now teaching the Design and Innovation for Sustainability paper I used to teach at AUT- we touched upon the topic of grief. I expressed my concern with Kübler-Ross model based on its linear conception of grief and lack of a transformational element following “acceptance” phase, which, in my opinion, is necessary for linking grief to empowering oneself as well mobilizing action. Kübler-Ross model is developed for terminally ill people or for people who lost something dear to them such as a loved one; therefore it is understandable that “acceptance” is the final phase as such a loss cannot be remedied. Other models complement this model by offering models for “healing” which is relevant to dealing with societal collapse, nevertheless insufficient as they focus on the individual while we need to work with models focusing on groups of people. We concluded that our search for appropriate models of transformational grief would continue. I told Gary and Finn that I didn’t find the task uplifting and I wasn’t sure if my best fit was facilitating grief as my work focused on transformation of an undesirable unsustainable state. I told them that I saw collapse as only one possible –yet increasingly more probable- mechanism and that I chose, for the time being, to remain somewhat hopeful that we might find the creative resources within ourselves to avoid a complete collapse.

Gary and Finn along with many sensible others have been busy for several years putting their adaptation measures in place. A couple of months ago I had a Skype conversation with two of my friends –a couple, Tuna and Pinar- from Turkey who are strategic consultants for sustainability. They’re based in Istanbul; a city in social and ecological decline of accelerating pace. Being worried for not focusing on assuring my own resilience for what is likely to unfold during my lifetime I asked Tuna and Pinar if they had any strategic direction for themselves such as moving from Istanbul and establishing a base with fertile land and reliable community. Their response was heartbreaking yet honourable: “We don’t have any hope that things will get better here but we’re not going to leave the city. We will keep on doing what we believe needs to be done until the time when we cannot anymore. We don’t have a strategy for ourselves, we don’t need one, we don’t want one. Wherever everyone else ends up, so will we end up there too. We don’t think we can allow ourselves to have privileges.” Had this relieve my anxiety about not having proofed my future? Not really. Nevertheless, it resonated with my reasoning for not being “proactive”. It also amused me by reassuring how spot on Nietzsche was in defining the concept of “Turkish fatalism”. I cannot help but wonder though if the difference between the Gary-Finn-and-alike approach and the Tuna-Pinar-Idil-and-alike approach stems from the different cultures of individualism versus community-orientedness or differences in risk perception and risk management approaches.

Before meeting with Gary and Finn on Friday, I spent close to three hours with Niki Harré who is an Associate Professor at the University of Auckland in the School of Psychology. She is the author of Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability and she is currently busy designing a game inspired by James Carse’s book “Finite and Infinite Games”. The game aims to identify what is of finite (extrinsic) and what is of infinite (intrinsic) value for people as a means to gain insight into how we can live well together (a question echoing Maya’s cry). Another aim of the game is to help people identify the finite games they have to play to keep playing The Infinite Game. As a community psychologist Niki is interested to understand motivational approaches to facilitate sustainability transitions. This created an immediate connection between her and I a couple of years ago and I helped Niki at very early stages of the development of the game. If I didn’t end up moving to Melbourne I would be her “design coach” (an opportunity I’m deeply saddened to have missed). Since the first prototype, Niki has run several workshops throughout New Zealand with groups of individuals as well as with organisations. She told me that the consistency of people’s deepest or infinite values is what has been most obvious from these workshops. While the natural world appears in the workshops as of intrinsic value, it is weaker than human qualities and emotions. She suggests this shows that people put people first. I questioned whether this could be proved true cross-culturally. She referred to her father’s statement (he was a cultural anthropologist) that indigenous communities use the natural world for their own purposes and that “living in harmony with nature” was a myth. She has since investigated this and found, for example, that fishing prohibitions in Pacific peoples are not because they cared for the fish but because this created opportunities for others to utilize the resource. To the extent that they understood nature and how to work with it, this was not because they wanted to live in harmony with nature but because they wanted to live well together as a human society. What does this tell us? Unfortunately one can never have sufficient time with people like Niki.

On Saturday I went to Maya’s place; we had lunch together and then went out for a walk on the beach. We did not follow up on topics of collapse or grief. It was mostly a conversation on happenings of our respective lives since we last saw each other in July 2013. We articulated the changes that have taken place in our views of people, places and ourselves including what we think our work is and should be. Then we sat on a bench and remained in silence for a while admiring the Rangitoto Island right across from the beach. Maya broke the silence, “Look, we don’t know what will happen even the next minute. We don’t know when Rangitoto will erupt but we know it will sooner or later, maybe even while we’re seated here, or long after we died. Nothing is certain and everything ever changes. Don’t paralyse yourself by getting lost in detail. You need to hold onto your truth and act from a place of integrity at any given time. That’s what matters.” I wondered what prompted Maya to make these remarks but didn’t ask for they fell in their places within me.

On that evening I went to a party to celebrate the long-awaited completion of my close friend Dan’s PhD. His topic was about issues faced in a contaminated site clean-up process in Mapua, New Zealand. Initially a technical research, Dan’s discovery on why an effective clean-up could not be achieved indicated reasons less to do with technical aspects and more with appropriate community engagement. Trained as an ecologist and an environmental engineer, facing the requirement to address his research question from a social science perspective resulted in Dan embarking onto a nine years long ordeal of undoing and redoing his project. In earlier years, Dan had several conversations with the local community several members of which fell sick due to contamination. He identified with the community members and lost track of his research for a while. Although I was one of the closest witnesses to his ordeal, I’ve never seen even a small piece of writing; he never felt ready to disclose his work. He changed it a lot, restarted few times, had to take time-off to recover from emotional fatigue the project caused him. Echoing his experience of identifying with the community while acknowledging the other difficulties associated with complex contaminated site clean-ups, finally he developed a new, very sophisticated psychosocial framework. The core elements of the framework include development of presence; self-empathy and empathy with community participants; rational and systematic understanding of the contamination problem from multiple perspectives; and empowerment of community as well as environmental manager perspectives. It was great to finally witness his completion which also meant uncovering of an age long mystery for our friends circle: what is Dan’s thesis?

To celebrate his completion and catch up on a one-to-one basis, I took him out for dinner a few evenings before the party. We talked about many topics as we have several common professional interests as well as a long personal relationship. While we were waiting for our desserts the conversation found its way to the topic of “love” with references to the “empathy” theme in his thesis. This reminded of my recent revisit of Dennis Meadows’ chapter on tools for transitions to sustainability in the book entitled “The Future of Sustainability”. Meadows counts love as one of the tools; the others are visioning, networking, truth telling, and learning. I recently had a brief interaction about this with a colleague in Melbourne who argued that love is not a tool but the fundamental basis. I disagreed although didn’t get a chance to voice and articulate this disagreement. I understood why he thought love was the fundamental basis, but for me there is one thing more fundamental than love which is fearlessness (distinct from courage) as it enables love; fear is a constant disabler for love to emerge. Also fundamental doesn’t mean absolute or self-manifesting. One has to work continuously to become fearless, or to act from a position of love. On top of this, love is an elusive concept and English language is not helpful either because of its “poverty” having only one word for love. This has always caused me a lot of struggle as I could never articulate the differences of several concepts that exist in my language all of which can only be translated as “love” as a result of this poverty. Therefore I always found the English word love iffy and unsatisfactory for explaining such a grand and rich human feeling. While I was reciting these thoughts to Dan he stopped me and said: “Don’t refer to love as a feeling, it is not”. I became perplexed and thought we were maybe having a language problem and asked “then what is it?”. He said “It is a state of existence when there is nothing else, I mean nothing else getting in the way”. I responded: “Oh, I loooove this dessert, don’t get in the way please” as a way of hiding a huge defeat, a lightning strike kind of check-mate behind my spoiled nature. Dan, knowing me very well that I revert to demagogy when I accept that I lost an argument, chuckled.

Before I caught my plane back to Melbourne, I popped into the newsagent at the airport. Among a poor selection of magazines (more magazines on “men’s interest” than “current affairs”), I picked New Zealand Geographic’s May-June issue because it had a special feature on climate. The piece must have been written before the breaking news on West Antarctic Ice Sheet as one article stated “there are signs of instability” rather than mentioning irreversible decline. The feature covered articles on findings of ANDRILL (which looked at ice cores to understand past climate and implications of current projections on stability of ice sheets and concluded that previous projections were conservative) and retreat of New Zealand glaciers especially of Franz Josef. From what I read I realized that Franz Josef, which, when I visited in 2008, left me in awe with its mass, beauty and vulnerability, retracted steadily that now tourists have to walk three kilometres to reach the terminal face and it is not safe anymore to climb the glacier as its front is very unstable so you have to be dropped from a helicopter to the top if you desire to do a walking tour. I obviously was being slack in practicing my “spiritual aikido” which I use to deal with the type of information I’m exposed to on a daily basis; a self-desensitisation routine. All of a sudden I felt like stabbed in the heart by the fact that no piece of land or place I felt connected to, developed a deep love towards, or dared to call home, would remain unaffected, that we single-handedly managed to alter the surface of the world to a point of no return. The child in me wept with full tears for several minutes while my adult self felt lucky for not having anyone seated next to me.

Right after I arrived in Melbourne on Sunday, I went to the closing night of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival to listen to Chick Corea and Gary Burton. It was full house; several hundred people had come to enjoy what I (metaphorically ?) think to be an emergent property of the slavery system. I wondered if any beauty would eventually emerge from the corrupt systems of our society too, nevertheless, neither the jazz nor this thought helped me yet to recover from the shadowland I sank into. Maybe it’s time to add grieving to Meadows’ list; if we’re going to experience it increasingly more, it makes sense to at least frame it in an empowering way, i.e. as a tool.

 

Interview with Professor Chris Ryan

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Part II: Victorian Eco-innovation Lab

(Part I: Systems and Cities in Design for Sustainability)

IG: Chris, we talked about the need to shift from objects and artefacts to systems in design and innovation for sustainability, cities being the new and necessary systemic focus. Let’s also talk about Victorian Eco-innovation Lab (VEIL) a bit. VEIL is known as a future-focused ‘design-research-engagement-action’ laboratory. Can you please explain what this means?

CR: Right from the start of VEIL the changes in systems that we’ve been thinking about have been those changes which would mitigate CO2 emissions but also very strongly about resilience and adaptation. When we reflected on this, dealing with mitigation and adaptation simultaneously, the idea of shifting away from centralised systems of provision –energy, water, food, transport, information etc –, which have been the dominant ones in the last two hundred years or so emerged. These systems of provision resulted in ever-increasing production, ever-increasing distance of distribution of production, ever-increasing dependence of consumers as only consumers who are removed from any action in relation to production except from the current choice between brands. Instead, at VEIL we’re positing a networked system of provision with much greater localization and much greater diversity. This is the Internet model for production and we think it is potentially much more resilient; in fact that resilience is intentional. If one part breaks down the others can continue to work. The distributed model has a much greater social and cultural impact. We can begin to think about the future lives of cities where production and consumption is much more distributed across the city in all of the provision areas we talked about. Food was a dominant system in our research in early days. You can think about the fact that everybody is to some extent both a consumer and a producer; even if they’re not directly involved in production themselves, they understand the local nature of production. But we can do that in a networked way more effectively. VEIL started with this idea of exploring what would happen if in all areas of the provision of goods and services we moved to a distributed model. Without going into too much history, because the lab is 8 years old now, it started in 2006, the big shift over time has been to place ourselves within a university, at least within University of Melbourne. In Australian context VEIL is fairly unusual; it is a research lab, it has researchers who get research funding but really, VEIL’s position is not embedded in the university itself; it sits between the University and community. At VEIL, we’re interested in research which can be directly influential on changing conditions of engagement with the community in a process which is fairly open where we can say, “here’s what we think are the challenges for the future” and then work with communities to search for possible solutions and to generate other areas of research. But half the research we have now comes from the visions of the future generated in earlier projects. Our biggest success and strength has been to work out over time how to involve final year master students -broadly in the design, planning and engineering areas- in the work that we do. In a way that satisfies, more than satisfies actually, their educational program by getting them involved in not just today’s planning and engineering problems but also future’s. This gives us a huge force to work with; to engage with communities, to rethink how the future might be structured and to ponder how we might get there. So, VEIL is involved in design, research, engagement, action and teaching as part of a whole unified strategy to create change.

IG: What are some of the projects VEIL is working on currently? Why do you think these projects are important?

CR: Well, in that engagement space the most enduring program we have now is called eco-acupuncture. Eco-acupuncture is VEIL’s process of taking research and thinking about the challenges of the future, as well as some of the elements that might allow us to address some of these challenges into real communities and places; “precincts” typically of the size of ten thousand people where the challenges in terms of resilience, extreme weather and reducing CO2 emissions and so on are complex. Eco-acupuncture projects are not about changing buildings; they’re about life, they’re about the infrastructure of survival as well as the culture. We take our students and our research, go out into these precincts and we engage in a process of work with representatives of the community to think about alternative, much more distributed 25-year futures. We do try to resolve environmental problems as well as improve well-being, health and all of those other things. Then, on the basis of that work we try to identify interventions that the community can make now; many small scale interventions that might start to open paths to go in the direction of distributed futures. Over time we’ve understood that in the nature of that engagement process, it’s best if we take all university research and education out into the community. For this purpose, we set up a “shop”, a kind of design lab in somewhere terribly public in shops, disused schools, disused town halls, surf life saving clubs etc. We work with the students and the researchers through our process of analysing what the challenges are for a particular area with lots of engagement with the local councils and the representatives of various local organisations and we develop visions of potential futures based on distributed future solutions. We exhibit these visions and carry out more engagement with the community while they look at those visions. When I use the word “visions”, I literally mean “visions”; visual representations of the future designed by students, then on the basis of some degree of acceptance, of intrigue and perceived plausibility for those futures by the community. Then we present another round of design work; proposals for things that could happen now that are small enough, that they’re within the ability of the local communities to do but also experimental; small enough so if they fail that’s not a big disaster but experimental enough so if they succeed they can replace business-as-usual. This work coming out of eco-acupuncture projects gives us the backbone for some of the research projects that are within the university and more traditional research projects which cover mathematical modelling and scenario analysis to understand what is possible for Austalia’s future in terms of food. There is some work about researching the nature of current pathways by which communities access food and how that can be improved with the purpose of trying to intervene by setting up new experimental ways by which connections between producers of food and consumers of food can be made in a way that improves health outcomes and improves sustainability. All of this work in a sense comes together in a very new, big, national project, in fact the project that you’re the principal researcher of, which aims to engage communities, business, governmental organizations and researchers in thinking about possible 25-30 year futures for Australian cities as low carbon (in the current terminology) and resilient. It’s called Visions and Pathways 2040 and it’s a four-year project funded by Cooperative Research Centre Low-carbon Living.

IG: VEIL carried some of its work at international level. Can you please explain some of these projects?

CR: The work that we’ve done in precincts in Melbourne, in country towns and so on, in some ways are better known overseas than in Australia. We had lots of requests to present VEIL’s work to other universities from different places ranging from Asia to Europe. Finally, two years ago, the City of Florence came to us through a very strange and indirect way. Somebody had seen our work, mentioned it to the City of Florence and the City came to us explaining that they have a fundamental problem with the future of Florence. Florence is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and preserved in that way. It’s increasingly there simply for the gaze of 12-14 million tourists a year and yet it’s a city that is trying to exist in that partly artificial past in a slightly theme park way while environmental conditions, weather conditions in particular are changing dramatically. So we went to work with the City, we took a whole team and some European partners joined us to redesign possible futures of the City and presented ideas on how the future might unfold for Florence. When we went there it was the fourth or fifth year of a severe draught, summer temperatures went regularly over high 30s and frequently over 40 degrees. It’s a city that has no trees in public places none whatsoever, it’s a city in great danger from flash floods and in winter the conditions have deteriorated as well. So there was a very clear clash between the future viability of that UNESCO museum and future survival of Florence. We took a team of students to work there with the support we got from a philanthropic organization attached to the University of Melbourne and the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning. We spent an intensive period of time working in the middle of the City, following the process of eco-acupuncture. There was lots of interaction with the residents and council representatives. Many of them were very challenged and surprised by some things which they thought should not be able to happen because they have an idea of fixity and preservation. We went back there with the students and the City itself as well as New York University Florence campus as partners. We furthered the work we started and produced a series of propositions the City should look at in particular; not blueprints of what they should do, but guides for how they might approach the future development of Florence. We have recently get into agreement with the City of Rotterdam in the Netherlands to carry out a similar eco-acupuncture project for Rotterdam starting from this year.

Florence Vision: Greenaissance Flowers and Distributed Innervation
The old Court House is the prototype site for a new network of reconditioned ‘Ghost building’ spaces, that all feature prominent retractable solar collection arrays or ‘solar flowers’. The Court House features creative studios, research and experimental facilities and an exchange space. Small start up companies can take advantage of the flexible studio spaces for developing new sustainable businesses. The Solar array ‘flowers’ provide energy and amenities for the host buildings and create a provocative addition to the heritage skyline of Florence.

Florence Vision: Arno Wetland Functional Landscape
A functional and recreational wetland is constructed along the banks of the Arno in central Florence. The lifeless space of the Lungarno is transformed into an extended night and day leisure corridor with active riverbanks. This is designed to act as a flood mitigation strategy, provide water purification and easily accessible green space for Florentines. Sustainable bioremediation techniques are exhibited within the park and horticultural activities such as flower growing are featured.

IG: The new project you mentioned earlier, that I’m working on, Visions and Pathways 2040, is a very important project for VEIL, bringing all the expertise accumulated in VEIL over the years of its existence, as well the current projects which are ongoing together, and it is a large project in terms of the partners and stakeholders involved. What would you like this project to achieve in Australia?

CR: One quite simple thing -which is the same thing we achieved in eco-accupuncture projects and I think perhaps the most critical thing to achieve in this project as well, that it overcomes a sense within the community that the change beyond a small variation of business-as-usual is simply not possible, that perhaps the most problematic issue in terms of changes associated with climate change, in dealing with significant structural change is that most people think that change is not possible. There’re surveys which ask people what kind of future they want. People respond with wonderful, radically non-business-as-usual ideas. But when they’re asked what kind of future they think they will get, their response is present carry through to future. So there’s an increasing gap in that sense. In a way, through this project if we can move in to situations where we’re able to say “The future can change. It can change quite quickly and here’re some ways in which future might be very different than the present” and do that in a way that people, communities, businesses, service companies, built environment companies and so on can get ideas about alternative futures, then I think we can achieve a lot in terms of speeding up the change. The critical issue is, we know we need to make changes within a remarkably short period of time. We sit at the end of two hundred years of development based on fossil fuel consumption and we’ve got 25-50 years at the most to completely unpack that and replace it with something else. Nothing like that has been achieved before. So we need ways in which we can address and overcome areas of resistance. The simple answer to your question is: to have sufficient communication of alternative visions of futures. We’re already in the process of generating these; we’ve touched, had the input from, have engaged with many people but hopefully through this project we can widen the audience of our message and the visions created in this project can become intriguing senses of the futures and demonstrate future doesn’t have to be straight line continuation of present, that it can be dramatically different.

IG: Chris, all of this is very exciting. I learned a lot about VEIL through our conversation and I am looking forward to actively take part in Visions and Pathways 2040 project as a researcher. Thank you for your time.

Interview with Professor Chris Ryan

Part I: Systems and Cities in Design for Sustainability

Sustainability is not a property of individual products, buildings, materials or infrastructure. It is a property of socio-ecologic as well as human-construct economic systems these are all part of. The field of design and innovation for sustainability is increasingly adopting this view. Nevertheless, carrying out research based on this new understanding is very hard if not impossible within existing, traditional and disciplinary system of universities. The systemic view which is required in addressing sustainability problems calls for transdisciplinary research approaches. As a result, research groups which can be identified as “niche” are emerging in the universities of the world.

In the recent past, I moved to Melbourne from New Zealand, where I lived for eight years and undertook a PhD in the area of system innovation for sustainability, to work in such a research group at the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning of the University of Melbourne. This research group is Victorian Eco-innovation Lab (VEIL) and to my surprise it is known better internationally than in Australia. VEIL is founded and directed by one of my research role-models, Professor Chris Ryan, whose work I’ve been following for thirteen years. Chris played an important role in the development and adoption of the systemic research approaches in the design and innovation for sustainability field. I interviewed him on the development of design and innovation for sustainability field, sustainability transitions at city level and VEIL. Here’s the first part.

Chris Ryan

Prof. Chris Ryan, Director of Victorian Eco-innovation Lab, University of Melbourne

IG: Chris, you are one of the first few people in the sustainable design field who argued for the need of systemic transformations in production and consumption systems as early as in the 1990s when the field was dominated with single issue focus such as recyclability, material selection etc. Why is it important to focus on systems for achieving sustainability?

CR: Well, that focus came out of the recognition of both a success and failure of a quite extensive, government funded project here in Australia undertaken in parallel with a similar project in the Netherlands. This project focused on the question of “Could we take any and all manufactured objects and systematically reduce their environmental impact whilst achieving market success?”. In Australia, the eco re-design program did that with a total of twenty companies. A number of those were projects which were hugely successful with big gains in the marketplace. After systematically going through the environmental impact from a life-cycle perspective, we worked out how to design that out in partnership with researchers, design practitioners and companies. Among these products, for example, there was a dishwasher. By the time we finished the work and released it to the market, it was quickly bought up by Electrolux, which is a world leading brand in regards to energy/water efficiency in appliances. We followed the same process with small appliances, with vending machines (partnering with Coca-Cola), ink cartridges for printers, packaging, etc. We covered right across the product spectrum. We achieved great successes from a life-cycle perspective; we achieved typically what could be achieved through the approach, that is between 50-70% reduction in environmental impact. If we generalize doing this for almost everything then that’s a huge success. This project was a great success in terms of beginning to think about sustainability systematically from a product life-cycle perspective. The problem with this approach, however, is two fold: First, much of the gains in these products came by designing out things which should never have been there in the first place. In other words, taking the design task as if the environment mattered, which was never done before, we were simply eliminating some really poor design. This meant that if we were to follow the same process again to the same product we wouldn’t get 50-70% improvements; we would only achieve marginal improvements as big companies like Philips and others have discovered at the time. You cannot continuously improve “things” with significant results even in an ideal world where this approach was implemented to everything. In other words, you cannot decouple environmental impact from products with an improvement approach. Second, both from the sectors we worked in but more generally, it was becoming remarkably clear towards the end of 90s that global increases in consumption were outstripping the kind of reductions in per product improvement. That vision which was there for a long time, the win-win vision that we can achieve sustainability by simply redesigning all the existing things was being underdone by the growth in consumption. There’re a number of good examples some of which are very well documented, for example, by the British Government. You could see the improvements taking place –mostly through technology development- which was being underdone by the impact of increasing consumption, so the total impact from those products was starting to rise again. So, if the aim from a societal perspective is to improve the world in which we live, reducing the environmental impact from all areas of production wasn’t going to happen by only changing the production and design of products. That one glorious win-win ideal didn’t last very long. As a result, we realized that we had to begin to think about the nature of consumption and about what’s driving consumption. All of that work -beginning to think about what you gain from products as services or functions- started in the late 90s. The history of most things we supplied as labour services are replaced by machines in the history of modern manufacturing and consumer products. The first question, then, was “Is there a way of doing without products and going back to services and do services generate a bigger reduction?”. In some cases, again in an ideal and theoretical way, it seemed that it was true, however, there’re very few examples that services have really done away. Even if services were associated with products, there’re some wonderful ideas but in thinking those ideas the following question was “How could the production and consumption system be organised such that there would be a really significant change in absolute consumption?”. We know those things now; they cover collaborative ownership of products or sharing of products, products that are leased and repaired, etc. Ultimately though, the most significant change can happen only if there’s a sheer reduction in unnecessary consumption. There’re figures from a US study, I think it was of Amory Lovins’ work but I’m not sure, indicating that only 1% of products sold, purchased, owned in the US are still being used after 6 months. This means that we exist in a world in which consumption actually is an act of making instant waste. We extract out of that incredibly short transaction some kind of satisfaction that doesn’t last for us long enough so we do it again and again and again. This is not new. It’s clear for decades; we know from the environmental movement of 70s that we can start to make significant changes only by changing the patterns of consumption. This incredible, embedded commitment to the idea that the world only survives if the economic growth continues is increasingly recognized as the fundamental root cause of sustainability problems both in its environmental and social dimensions. Therefore, increasingly more, we acknowledge that we have to start thinking about the systems that underpin the nature of economic activity. Design and innovation for sustainability research is shifting towards demonstrating the possibility of alternative systems through which human life can flourish and quality of life and wellbeing can be assured without a growth oriented economy through experimentation and modelling of new ways of organizing economic activity. These cover generation of new business models, even new ways of governing society so that its innovative potential can be brought forward and communities can be empowered and become resilient.

IG:  Chris, your focus has shifted from production and consumption systems to even larger systems. At VEIL under your direction researchers look at transformation of cities, of urban environments and of associated support systems. Why is it important for us to focus on cities now?

CR: There’re multiple reasons. Some of these in a sense “just arrived” while we were doing a continuation of this systems work. First, in the early work, that is in taking a life-cycle perspective in environmental impact reduction the idea of systems existed. The focus was diffuse to cover reducing impact with regards to biodiversity, water/air/soil quality, etc. which are of course absolutely essential if we are to have a sustainable future. One thing which wasn’t as dominant in the thinking of 90s as it is now, in terms of the suite of things we have to address, is climate change. Climate change brings with it two areas of focus: one is simply reducing the pollution to air and atmosphere stemming from the processes of production and consumption because we have to and because action is urgent if we are to have a future. This is all about mitigation; this has become a major focus of trying to achieve sustainability. But the other side of the equation is the historical increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere which means that the climate is already changing. We are realizing that regardless of how successful we are in reducing emissions, the future is going to bring significant changes in patterns of weather. Now I introduce those two things because they suggest the necessity for a two-fold and coherent strategy: one about mitigation of climate change and at the same time processes to adapt to changing conditions. These two have to be coherent; you shouldn’t go in one direction for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions only to find out that by doing so, you made it harder to adapt. So, this is kind of the broad change that is happening in the sustainability research landscape. Second, coming back to the issues of what drives patterns of consumption, there’s a recognition that there are many drivers of consumption at the social system level and reducing consumption is not going to be achieved through intervening into individual behaviour as individuals are embedded into communities taking on particular patterns of living. We’re beginning to think about what can be changed at a community level beyond individuals to provide for forms of satisfaction that are not reliant on rampant overconsumption. Third, now more than half of the world’s population live in cities and in thirty years time this figure is projected to be 75%. The urbanization of the world is enormous. Cities, if you measure them as agents of the problems we face, are the driving forces of 75-80% of all greenhouse gas emissions. They’re dynamic driving agents of the worst kind of consumption. So, simply from a pragmatic point of view, cities are where the change has to take place. But the other thing is, which is about the positive side of cities as well, we’re beginning to understand the good cities; cities at a particular scale –it is a question mark what that size is- actually provide the kind of social conditions for innovation. That kind of creative interaction comes from the social mix in the cities. That’s partly why people move into cities; cities create dynamic social forces for innovation and change. So, somehow or other, in cities there should be the possibility to emphasise the social, the innovation, the creativity, to both find a way out of the problems we have and also to change patterns of consumption. But once you start looking at cities, you also realize that cities are being challenged right as we speak now. Especially evident in Australia is that cities have been built over a long period of time based on an understanding of and dealing with the weather patterns –the rainfall, the seasonal temperature change, the wind directions etc- as well as considering provision of human comfort, to provide us with food, water, and so on. Therefore, physical form of cities and the objects of cities, that are buildings, infrastructure and support systems, are all grown over time based on an assumption that we can expect the weather patterns and variability of those weather patterns to remain constant. But we already know that this is not the case. Time and time again now, major weather events or significant shifts in the average seasonal temperatures are making the existing infrastructure of cities very vulnerable and unable to deal with the new conditions. So for all of these environmental and social reasons, cities seem to be the only places to start really. It’s in the redesign of cities as physical, infrastructural elements as well as places of human habitation, community, social interaction. That is the only hope. Coincidentally, since the financial crisis of 2008 there is a very cogent argument being mounted from so many people that, where new economies are emerging, they’re not emerging from the old places of national governments; they’re emerging from cities, from people actually making decisions and taking action in sub-communities, sometimes as small towns or sometimes as whole cities.

IG: Can you give some examples of cities or communities driving this change?

CR: Yes, there’re numerous examples, we’ve known some of them for a long time. Majority of examples are from the developing world, not from the developed world. I think, if you look back on it now, the conditions of the physical embedding of power were much loser in them. There’s the famous example of Curitiba in Brazil where whole new ways of thinking about the city was possible and were achieved with remarkable outcomes. And there’s a whole host of examples within so called developing countries where big changes have taken place out of desperation at an earlier stage and without the entrenched push back from existing power structures. It’s much harder in the developed world because there wasn’t the driver until the financial crisis. Because power is literally embedded in the world around us by who owns it, by what cultural, historical and social cues are given, by the kind of structurally embedded consumption. In most Australian cities there’re parts of the cities that are grown over the last few decades, 3 or 4 decades, where it is structurally impossible to survive without a car because there is no alternative for it. So there’s also a type of consumption which is fundamentally structural and therefore obligatory. This kind of consumption patterns can easily be built into cities. Examples of recent case studies arguing that cities are the basis of the future can be found in some of the work of Richard Florida, by Edward Glaeser’s book “Triumph of the City”, in the recent book of Brookings Institution “The Metropolitan Revolution”, and in several reports by McKinsey’s. We also witness emergence of these global networks of cities aiming to make changes and support each other.  It’s very inspiring to see that in most of these places cities don’t exist as a formal governance structure and yet they’re big enough to generate economies.

-End of Part I-

(Part II: Victorian Eco-innovation Lab)

Sailing to New Oceans

I am sailing to new oceans… In fact, I am moving onto “city level” challenges.

I have resigned from my job at Auckland University of Technology where I taught design and innovation for sustainability and design futures across three programs (Design Major, Master of Design and Product Design) in two faculties (Faculty of Design and Creative Technologies and Faculty of Business and Law) as of Friday August 9th. I am moving to Melbourne, Australia to take up a role as a researcher at the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL) of University of Melbourne. The project I will be working for at VEIL aims to explore and articulate visions, scenarios and policy pathways for a low carbon built environment in some Australian cities. I am very excited with the prospect of working in a project which looks at systems (i.e. cities) larger than what I’ve focused on so far (i.e. organisations and production-consumption systems). This will enable opportunities for me to use and expand my knowledge on system innovations, design futures and transdisciplinary research. I am also very excited that the project leader is Prof. Chris Ryan whose work I’ve been following for thirteen years. Maybe I died and now I’m in researchers’ heaven.

System Innovation for Sustainability: Using Systems Thinking and Design Thinking

I recently attended a webinar on using systems thinking and design thinking conjointly to address sustainability challenges. The webinar was presented by Peter Coughlan of IDEO and Colleen Ponto of Seattle University. It was great to hear from these forefront thinkers/doers thoughts similar to mine on the potential of using systems thinking and design thinking conjointly. I also derived a lot of learning on how to communicate these ideas using simple language and examples. I am looking forward to seeing this thinking spread to a wider audience and used by policy makers (top-down actors) and innovators (bottom-up) alike, preferably in collaborative projects. Inspired by this webinar, I explain my thoughts on conjoint use of systems thinking and design thinking that I’ve been mulling over for a while. I have five main messages.

1. All design and innovation efforts to achieve sustainability should be based on sustainability science:

Sustainability is a system property. In order to plan for and achieve the required transformations towards becoming sustainable, we need to work with a set of questions which cannot be answered through traditional disciplinary segmentation of knowledge (Figure 1). First we need to understand the systems needing to be transformed and the interrelationships between these systems. This knowledge is acquired and interpreted by basic disciplines such as physics, chemistry, sociology and ecology. Second, we need to understand what we can do to transform these systems. The knowledge to answer this question comes from the applied disciplines such as engineering, agriculture, architecture and business. Third, we need to establish what we want to do and set our priorities towards our destination based on what we know about the systems and what we can do to transform them. The knowledge for this comes from disciplines such as planning, law, politics and design. Finally, we need to establish a values framework which will oversee our work towards sustainability and will inform our actions. The knowledge for this comes from disciplines dealing with human values such as ethics, philosophy and theology.

Figure 1. Transdisciplinary generation of knowledge (Max-Neef 2005)

Sustainability science has complex adaptive systems theory as its main tenet, focuses on the dynamic interactions between nature and society and aims to bridge the natural and social sciences for seeking creative solutions to these complex challenges.  (Clark & Dickson, 2003; Jernek et al., 2010; Kates et al., 2001; Spangenberg, 2004). Sustainability science is a transdiscipline which integrates knowledge from all disciplinary domains to solve socially relevant complex problems. Sustainability scientists, instead of developing disciplinary expertise, focus on understanding specific sustainability problems by tapping into the knowledge generated from all disciplines relevant to the problem. The expertise gained by sustainability scientists can be described as a new generation expertise because of its transdisciplinary nature.

Although there is a lot of discussion on sustainability within the design and innovation field and there are a lot of claims on sustainability of particular products/services/technologies or business operations/models/processes, I do not observe much of this being based on the science of sustainability. Unless designers/innovators acknowledge and use the growing body of knowledge generated by sustainability science, there is not much potential for design/innovation efforts to address the right problems with the right objectives.

2. In order to achieve sustainability, our design and innovation efforts should intervene into systems:

Today we know that reducing unsustainability through efficiency improvement approaches will not produce sustainability; it will only save us miniscule amounts of time before the systems we rely on collapse or become unviable to support human life. Traditionally and still currently, we focus most of our efforts to improve existing products/services or design new products/services with higher efficiency than the earlier ones. Although these approaches have their place in transforming systems, if remain as our sole strategic framework for innovation they become lock-ins and hinder systemic transformations (e.g. Könnölä & Unruh, 2007). Product-centred innovation approaches should leave their places to innovation efforts aiming to meet particular social functions, thus breaking from incrementalist tendencies and generating opportunities for radical systemic transformations. The new generation innovation approaches do not start with a product concept; instead, they start with identifying new ways of meeting human needs which have traditionally been met by particular products or services or left unmet. For example, in the new approaches to innovation, the starting aim is not to develop a more efficient washing machine but generating ideas on how to provide clean clothes to people. By taking a step back and identifying the actual need, innovative concepts are generated and new organisational models can be developed. This approach also enables moving from a fixation of technological development to developing both technological and social interventions conjointly meeting the specified need.

The new generation innovation efforts aiming to address interrelated environmental and social issues should be based on sustainability science and innovate not only for developing new technological solutions to sustainability problems but also to generate new organisational models, inspire new social and cultural norms and to eventually alter the institutional context within which socio-technical systems reside. This require both macro and micro-level innovations; in other words we need to optimise our designs for the systems as well as for the individuals using the products/service/technologies of the systems. Leveraging micro- (product/service) and macro-level (system) innovations simultaneously mandates business plans to cover longer periods than they traditionally have and strategic and market-creating approaches to innovation than market-following approaches.

Figure 2. Levels of innovation for sustainability (Brezet, 1997; Gaziulusoy, 2010; 2011)


3. Design thinking is a very appropriate approach to use in innovation for sustainability especially when used in conjunction with systems thinking:

Design in society has been understood with references to its outputs such as fashion design (clothes), urban design (cities), architectural design (buildings), car design (automobiles), product design (products), service design (services) etc. However, design is a fundamental human cognitive ability, it is a particular way of thinking. Design professionals are trained to use design thinking to generate solutions for specified challenges. Design thinkers tap into different types of knowledge available to humanity to reach a normative goal. Design thinking is a process which starts with defining/redefining the problem to be addressed. This is followed by research, creative exploration, evaluation of ideas and implementation and communication of the solution. The output of design thinking can be any of the above mentioned outputs but also through design thinking one can conceive new systems, processes, organisational models, enterprises, policies and even community campaigns. The strength of design thinking in the context of innovation for sustainability lies in its emphasis on the divergent process of generating alternative solutions before acting upon one compared to traditional optimisation approaches which selects the optimum solution among available options. Design thinking process can be applied to almost any problem to transform people, organisations and systems. This has been coined with a new term by UK Design Council: Transformation Design. The new generation innovation approaches explicitly or implicitly use design thinking for transforming the society.

Figure 3. Conjointly using systems thinking and design thinking (Coughlan and Ponto, 2012)

Design thinking can reach its potential to address sustainability challenges only if it is conjointly used with systems thinking as these two approaches complement each other in achieving system innovations. Systems thinking looks at the history and present state of systems to analyse and understand them. Design thinking looks at the present state of a system and asks the normative, future-oriented question of “what can be?” in order to innovate and transform the systems. Systems thinking has qualitative and quantitative tools and methods which help to uncover patterns and structures within a system to explain how the events -the problems we observe- have been created through time. On the other hand, design thinking has several tools and methods to uncover the mental models which created the structures and historical patterns. Systems thinking optimises at system level whereas design thinking optimises at individual level therefore together they can create alignment between the innovation direction of system components and systems consisting of those components.

4. Design and innovation efforts should be collaborative and empowering:

One fundamental systems thinking rule states: When intervening in a system, effort should be put in restoring or enhancing the system’s own ability to solve its problems (Meadows, 2008). Aligned with this, it is really important that in our design and innovation efforts we analyse and address problems with a good contextual understanding and in a way to create opportunities within that context. Two solutions addressing the problem of access to safe drinking water can be used to illustrate this point.

It is common knowledge that currently approximately 800,000 people lack access to an improved water source. There have been many efforts to address this problem which also include developing purification technologies. One product marketed as LifeStraw, designed by a Swiss company, became one of the iconic products addressing this problem in developing countries. This product consists of a plastic tube through which a person can suck water from a water body. The water is filtered by fibres that are in the tube as the person drinks it. A person generally goes through one or two of these products in a year. This product is often referred to as a great example of sustainable design. This product has received criticitism for being too expensive for the intended use contexts and the funding was supplied by health campaigns run by NGOs which probably tapped into foreign aid.

Purifying water is not rocket science; there is no need for sophisticated production technologies, plastic cases and top-secret filter formulae. The problem with access to drinking water does not rise from the lack of appropriate technologies in a context to purify water, it rises because of the lack of incentives to act in ways to enhance and restore those contexts their own ability to purify their own water (because the so-called “innovators” cannot make a business case otherwise). Low cost water purification systems can be easily made using local materials and low-tech manufacturing technologies. A good example is the clay pot filter developed by Australian material scientist and potter Tony Flynn. This filter is made by mixing clay with fine grained organic material fired without the requirement of kilns. This technology is open source so that anyone can make these filters and the knowledge of making them can be transferred to the communities experiencing the problem.

Therefore, both in identifying and addressing problems design and innovation efforts should use human-centred approaches to generate solutions which are empowering for the intended users. This of course also requires shifting from profit-centred economic models of doing business to people-centred models, which essentially can be conceived as a design problem.

5. Design and innovation efforts should be based on a personal vision aligned with the future we would like to see in the world

Unfortunately, vision as a term has been narrowed down to mean a single-sentence, “measurable” statement by the mainstream management literature and practice of 1990s. Recently, the power and importance of visions and the proper practice of visioning is being rediscovered by people who are working in the field of sustainability, from scientists to grassroots activists to policymakers. Futurists define visions as “futures for the heart”. On the contrary to single-sentence visions of 1990s, the more detailed and the more collaboratively developed the visions for sustainable futures are the better. Our design and innovation efforts can lead us towards achieving system innovations for sustainability only if our day to day actions are informed by a personal vision which takes into consideration the spatial and temporal influence we have as individuals on our workmates, company vision, fellow citizens, policy, and future generations.

Temporal and spatial influences of personal action and vision

References I used in this post:

Brezet, H. (1997). Dynamics in ecodesign practice. Industry and Environment, 20(1-2), 21-24.

Clark, W. C., & Dickson, N. M. (2003). Sustainability science: The emerging research program. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100(14), 8059-8061.

Coughlan, P., & Ponto, C. (2012). Systems Thinking + Design Thinking: Moving from What Was and What Is to What Could Be [Webinar]. USA

Gaziulusoy, A. I. (2010). System Innovation for Sustainability: A Scenario Method and a Workshop Process for Product Development Teams (Ph.D. thesis). University of Auckland, Auckland.

Gaziulusoy, A. I. (2011). System Innovation for Sustainability at Product Development Level: A Conceptual Framework. Proceedings of the Tao of Sustainability: An International Conference on Sustainable Design Strategies in a Globalization Context, October 27-29, 2011, Beijing, China.

Jerneck, A., Olsson, L., Ness, B., Anderberg, S., Baier, M., Clark, E., … Persson, J. (2010). Structuring sustainability science. Sustainability Science, 1-14.

Kates, R. W., Clark, W. C., Corell, R., Hall, J. M., Jaeger, C. C., Lowe, I., … Svedin, U. (2001). Environment and development: Sustainability science. Science, 292(5517), 641-642.

Könnölä, T., & Unruh, G. C. (2007). Really changing the course: the limitations of environmental management systems for innovation. Business Strategy & the Environment 16(8), 525-537.

Max-Neef, M. A. (2005). Foundations of transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics, 53(1), 5-16.

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: a primer. White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Spangenberg, J. H. (2004, August 27-28, 2004). Sustainability Science: Which Science and Technology for Sustainable Development? Presented at the meeting of the IRDF Forum on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg. Available from http://www.istas.ccoo.es/escorial04/material/dc10.pdf

UNICEF/WHO. (2012). Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation. Available from http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2012/9789280646320_eng_full_text.pdf 

Some questions on system innovation for sustainability

This evening I had a Skype chat with Anna Birney, who is the head of System Innovation Lab at Forum for the Future, to meet and to exchange views and ideas about the topic. I learned a little bit more about the new strategy FFF has just launched and explained Anna what I’ve been doing in relation to system innovation in the past five years. Both Anna and I share the opinion that the theories around system innovation and transitions, although useful to understand how systemic change occurs in socio-technical systems, has so far been a little bit slack in providing pointers and leverage points to transform systems at practical level. I also must add to this that, the discourse has been predominantly techno-centred and not much emphasis has been put on social innovations in system innovation experiments. This is, in my opinion, mainly due to the fact that the theories have been coming out of the European Union context which is primarily post-industrial, advanced in technological innovation and dominated by a Western worldview of well-being. I know through some of my contacts in academia that research in system innovation area is now starting to investigate emerging and bottom-of-the-pyramid economies (for example the program led by Rob Raven) and validity of models and theories in different socio-cultural contexts. I have been mulling over some questions about system innovation especially in the context of companies and innovation teams for a long time now. I’ll list them here. But first I’ll introduce the multi-level perspective on system innovations which has been developed over the years mainly by Rene Kemp and Frank Geels who are well-known scholars in this area (see Kemp, 1994; Geels, 2005a, 2005b; Geels and Schot, 2007).

In order to investigate innovation at system level, not only technological change but also changes in user practices, markets, regulations, culture and infrastructure, which altogether constitute the socio-technical regime, should be addressed. This model portrays the dynamic nature of system innovation through a layered structure. According to this model, the stability increases and rate of change decreases towards upper levels of the socio-technical system, but the depth and influence of change increases towards lower levels. Nevertheless the change does not happen in a linear fashion and the relationship between the three levels is similar to a nested hierarchy. The layers have internal dynamics as well as influencing changes at other levels and the central focus is at the middle where the socio-technical regime resides. Geels (2005a, p.83) explains “First, novelties emerge in technological and/or market niches. Niches are crucial for system innovation, since they provide the seeds of change. The emergence of niches is strongly influenced by existing regimes and landscape, … [T]he influence from the regimes on niches is stronger and more direct than the influences from landscapes, which is more diffuse and indirect” . The niches are loosely structured and there is much less co-ordination among actors. The regimes are more structured than niches and the rules of the regimes have co-ordinating effects on actors through a strong guidance of the activities of the actors. Landscapes are even more structured than regimes and are more difficult to change. Nevertheless, as the figure suggests, landscapes influence change both on niches and regimes; in return, niches (may) change the regimes, and the new regime changes the landscape in the longer term. The socio-technical landscape in this model is relatively static, stands for the external context and represents the physical, technical and material setting supporting the society, and cannot be changed by the actors in the short-term. Landscapes are constituted by rapid external shocks, long-term changes and factors that do not change or change only very slowly. In order to manage systemic transitions, the lowest level of MLP model, i.e. the niches, play an important role since radical innovation takes place in niches whereas in socio-technical regimes innovation is incremental. The niches consist of promising innovations and they have to be protected in order to enable them to develop from an idea or a prototype to a technology which is actually used.

With references to the MLP model, here are my questions:

1. How does sustainability issues relate to this model? My answer to this is that they are among the landscape developments and put the socio-technical regime under pressure (but only if influence the regime immediately). Some of the responses have been to enforce regulatory measures on companies which respond to these regulatory measures through compliance. On the other hand, given that governmental policy is developed with a short-term outlook, the legislative enforcements, although helping with optimisation and efficiency increases, are not likely to be the most effective leverage points to transform systems. In cases where sustainability issues are significantly relevant to a particular sector, and if companies are a little bit forward looking, there may be some voluntary action taken with a longer-term approach as seen in some of the fresh produce growing industries strategising to respond to impacts of climate change on their business. However, unless the signals from the landscape are immediately relevant to the socio-technical regime, the regime will continue with business-as-usual. This leads to the second question, which was also a question of Anna;

2. What will be the impact of landscape changes on the companies which are part of the incumbent socio-technical regime? Given the traditional business planning periods are considered very short-term in the context system innovation, those companies which fail to adopt transformational strategies are likely to go out of business. This is similar to some publishing companies, which did not have the foresight about the impacts of increasing self-publishing, becoming bankrupt suddenly. Although technologies do not come by overnight, those companies with short planning periods may not be able to adapt the changes that are being “cooked” currently but which will become “market norms” a short while beyond the preferred business planning periods of short-termist companies. On the other hand, for those companies with foresight about the impact of unfolding meta-level changes, the problem is how to manage the organisational transformation. Here I think the concept of creative destruction in a Schumpeterian way is highly relevant. Since niche innovations are particularly important in transforming socio-technical regimes, the rest of my questions are related to them and I don’t have answers to these questions as yet;

3. Niche innovations are counter to and threatening for the incumbent regimes and their business/market logic. In this case, how best to protect them and manage their maturation while avoiding the sudden collapse of the incumbent regimes? Who is going to carry out this mediatory management job? If everything will be left to the self-organising dynamics within the system, how will maturation of these niches be guaranteed? If there’s no guarantee possible, what’s our Plan B?

4. Recently there have been a lot of interest in these niches mainly in sustainable and social entrepreneurship discourses. On the other hand, these discourses does not really reference their theories or activities to sustainability science. What is the actual potential of niches in enabling systemic transformations for sustainability (especially since sustainability can only be assessed at the systemic level, that is no niche innovations can be claimed to be “sustainable” and also sustainability cannot be assessed before the fact, that is before there is a new socio-technical system with observable and measurable properties)?;

4. And finally, it has been observed that while these niches are maturing, there have been value changes in their associated entrepreneurial contexts to become aligned with the values of the socio-technical regime that is aimed to be changed. How can the individuals -the entrepreneurs- be empowered so that the value compromises they have to make to place their innovations in the market and compete with established companies and technologies do not exceed levels to nullify their change agency?

References I used in this post:

Geels, F. W. (2005a). Technological transitions and system innovations: a co-evolutionary and socio-technical analysis. Cheltenham, UK ; Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar Pub.

Geels, F. W. (2005b). Processes and patterns in transitions and system innovations: Refining the co-evolutionary multi-level perspective. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 72(6 SPEC. ISS.), 681-696.

Geels, F. W., & Schot, J. (2007). Typology of sociotechnical transition pathways. Research Policy, 36(3), 399-417.

Kemp, R. (1994). Technology and the transition to environmental sustainability: the problem of technological regime shifts. Futures, 26(10), 1023-1046.