Professor Xavier Pavie, Associate Academic Director of the Grande Ecole programme at ESSEC Business School, Asia-Pacific and Director of the iMagination Center, sets the blueprint for our need for an enlightened and sustainable approach to innovation.
By Prof. Xavier Pavie
After decades of innovation without real awareness, the question is, can innovators now risk turning a blind eye to their environment and ecosystem for the sake of profit?
In recent decades, two major phenomena have taken hold of economic, political and social debates: innovation on the one hand, and the environment on the other. Although, by definition, innovation is not new, in the economic sphere it did not really emerge until the beginning of the twentieth century, with an even stronger emphasis from the 1960s onwards. It was precisely at this moment in time when major innovations were to unfold, be it the Internet, DNA sequencing, genomic manipulations, advances in transhumanism or even nanotechnologies.
The second major phenomenon is the environment in which innovations have played and continue to play a major role. As a result of innovations, populations and animal species are disappearing. The massive development of technologies, products, and consumer goods, both every day and sporadic, has a direct impact on the depletion of natural resources. There is, without a doubt, a degradation of the atmosphere, of soils, of the oceans, because of human activity, and of the permanent search for economic growth. Increasing urbanisation is changing the balance of the biosphere in a sustainable way. And these challenges are global – acid rain and radioactive pollution are borderless, and the “7th continent”, made of plastic, drifts in the Pacific, outside national waters. These consequences are directly linked to the lack of reflection on the development of certain innovations, the lack of implementation of a certain circularity of manufactured products or the unpredictability of innovations that can be introduced into a market.
Tomorrow’s innovators will have to be accountable for their actions
In view of this, it is clear that we can no longer innovate as we have been doing for the past several decades – that is, without thinking, or giving so little thought, about the consequences of our innovations. And the first to be concerned by this responsibility is obviously the innovator. They bear a responsibility for the world they design through the new products and services they launch on the market. And this responsibility is even more important as innovators find themselves in a new world, which articulates both the modern period in which we find ourselves, and the search for a sustainable and responsible development with a view to preserving humankind and its environment. It is up to the innovator to think and integrate this new imperative. Some have already done so, like Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, who made product recycling central to his strategy from the first climbing spikes he began to reuse in the early 1960s; or Anita Roddick, the founder of The Body Shop, which was the first brand in the late 1980s to engage in fair trade in the field of beauty. We must bear in mind that, until then, spontaneous innovation has only emerged from human beings. Innovation is always the product of the innovator (whether they are a scientist, doctor, engineer, astrophysicist, financier, etc.). In fact, this is both worrisome and encouraging, because if the innovator has such control over living organisms by deploying their ideas, novelties, and innovations they can also change the world, by integrating the dimension of responsibility in their projects. To do this, innovators must understand that they are as much a “citizen” as a professional, and that in their hands arise the philosophical choice of a humanly sustainable future.
This requires a new type of innovator: an informed innovator, able to question short, medium and long-term issues, to assess both opportunities and risks. In other words, to act responsibly. And it may be in these terms that the figure of tomorrow’s innovator must appear: a responsible person who is able to formulate the right questions not only to make their organisation sustainable – which is a prerequisite – but also to be considerate of the whole ecosystem. As such, only philosophy will allow the emergence of a new innovator – to infuse thought, awareness, reflection, questioning, and to develop a critical approach.
Reconciling profit and happiness
It also requires companies to deal with certain problems. Firstly, they should question their mental representations and visions. How can we reconcile the acceleration of time, the bias of action, with taking a step back, being aware, and reflect on the consequences of our actions, and in the same spirit, how can we act and think simultaneously? Or how can we combine the demand for short-term results with heightened competition on the one hand, and common good and justice on the other hand? How can we better balance the issues between different stakeholders? Purpose-related approaches and how they are adapted within the framework of a mission-based company can represent true leverage to guide responsible innovation. They indeed seek to combine economic results with social and environmental goals. They define a strategic compass that guides the innovator in his/her attempt to reconcile profit and happiness, and take into account the needs of various stakeholders. “Improving health everywhere, every day” – it is easy to understand that by redefining its purpose, Danone is opening up new fields of innovation and, at the same time, setting itself boundaries not to be crossed. In 2007, Danone became the first agribusiness player in the world to position itself in the health market, establishing itself as a specialist in medical nutrition through its Nutricia brand. More recently, in 2017, Danone acquired the American company WhiteWave to innovate on plant-based products that are nutritionally and environmentally healthier than traditional dairy yoghurts. As another example, by taking a nutritional improvement approach, the company defines minimum levels of nutritional value for each of its products (except water, where there is no justification for doing so), both in terms of nutrients to be developed and nutrients to be limited. In 2020, Danone committed to offering a 100% salt- and sugar-free Blédina range.
From Schneider Electric to Danone
More operational issues are also emerging. How can the skills of those who undertake innovation be developed? Methodologies such as the agile approach or design thinking have led to the development of new skills and even new occupations. A good example is the Chief Transformation Officer, or change manager – an emerging position at the intersection of digitalisation, innovation, and IT. Should we develop “soft skills” beyond those already being promoted? How can we support innovators so that they show concern and attention to the planet and human welfare? Several cases illustrate this particular attention. For example, some companies have embarked on incubation activities associated with developing projects for the poorest, such as Schneider Electric with its programme dedicated to the Bottom of the Pyramid (people living on less than two dollars a day) to bring lighting to the poorest; or Danone, which, via Danone Communities, funded projects on nutrition and access to water notably based on social entrepreneurship in Africa or Asia.
Beyond this necessary awareness, the issue is one of challenging and reviewing both the processes of innovation and how it is managed – not only in order to properly assess risks, but also to assess the potential social and environmental benefits. This can be done, for example, by ensuring that certain innovation management indicators quantify, and allow the monitoring of, the indirect impact of a product on the market, employment, sustainable development, and public policy, etc. There is indeed still a long way to go, but one thing is certain: today, companies can no longer pretend to ignore this reality.
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