Tackling the Nexus(es) of Sustainability and Innovation

Tackling the Nexus(es) of Sustainability and Innovation

[Author's note: I so wanted the plural of "nexus" to be "nexes." But it turns out it's either "nexuses," which is awkward, or "nexus," which is ambiguous. I can't bring myself to use the former, so let me disambiguate the latter -- I want to talk about more than one nexus between Sustainability and Innovation.]

Everyone in the world of sustainability knows that it and innovation go hand in hand. We are, after all, reliant on innovation to find new ways to conduct business, live our lives, and structure an economy that can eradicate hunger and poverty -- all in a world of finite resources.

Innovation is increasingly the frame through which we're approaching the challenge of a sustainable economy in public forums, such as the GreenBiz Innovation Forum, which is (IMHO) far more productive than getting together to enumerate the problems or congratulate ourselves for implementing what we already know how to do (though there is a place for that, too).

Last week, though, I had a small epiphany (my skating coach and I used to call them "epiphanettes"). It was at an event called The Business of Innovating sponsored by the Green Innovators in Business Network (GIBN) and Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES, formerly known as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change).

Frankly, I was having a blast co-presenting with my colleague Steve Todd, EMC Distinguished Engineer, Director of EMC's Global Research and Innovation Program, and author of two books on innovation. (Check out Steve's blog here). We were doing a duet on the evolution and then confluence of the innovation and sustainability programs at EMC from the perspective of our own personal journeys.

At the end, I made some comment about the journey to both "sustainable innovation" and "innovation for sustainability." Odin Zackman, who did a terrific job of facilitating for the day, picked up on that in his summation. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Steve and I were actually working three different aspects of sustainability and innovation.

First, of course, is in the creation and implementation of solutions for the purpose of reducing our, or someone else's, impact. Many of these are submitted to EMC's Annual Innovation Showcase and for the past couple of years, we've awarded an Environmental Stewardship Award and a Social Innovation Award. (Definitely check out Steve's blog to learn more about the Showcase and the analytics they're performing to better understand innovation at EMC!).

Winners have included an offering for the Bottom of the Pyramid, solutions for energy and carbon-efficient data centers, and some really creative ideas for product packaging. Our engineering teams have also been a tremendous source of innovation in this category -- whether explicitly by designing new approaches to energy efficiency, or indirectly by innovating technologies to reduce demand and increase utilization of IT systems.

The second nexus is less obvious -- and not unique to innovation, per se. It's about tapping into the culture of innovation in a company. If sustainability is about culture change -- and it is -- then we need to find ways to connect it to the things people value most.

Sure, we have plenty of employees at EMC who self-identify as "green." But we have a huge cadre of technologists who pride themselves on innovation. The CTO's office at EMC graciously invited me to be a plenary speaker at the "home stage" of our multi-city conference last year, and this year they invited me to be MC at the corporate event.

Both were great experiences, but more to the point, they gave me a platform to make the case for the importance of sustainability to a very core audience. I hope to get to do it again!

The third one is "sustainable innovation" and it is the toughest. At the GIBN event, we were clear that it's a nut we haven't quite cracked after four years.

And before you complain, I do know that there's a very fuzzy line between that and "innovation for sustainability;" in fact, in the best of all possible worlds, they become one and the same. The idea is that for each and every innovation assessed, we consider not only the traditional attributes of cost, human resource requirements, creativity, and economic value but also evaluate them for environmental and social costs, risks, and value.

We tried incorporating those qualities into the guidance we gave to judges, but simply adding a column to a spreadsheet isn't going to do it. The challenge is really getting into the hands of people who judge innovations, whether in contests or simply in their day-to-day roles, the knowledge and tools to perform that assessment. And the visceral understanding of why they should. And the ability to quantify the results.

That's what we're working on now -- "sustainable innovation" across the board. And I'm delighted that Steve is engaged in helping figure it out! But if you have any suggestions, we're all ears....

This article originally appeared on Kathrin Winkler's blog, and is reprinted with permission.

Lightbulb photo via Shutterstock.