Driving systemic change through sustainable innovation

By Alexandra Pellas

23 June 2022

Where can the sustainability conscious business innovator turn to in order to understand and drive systemic change?

Where does the sustainability conscious business innovator turn to in order to understand and drive systemic change? As discussed in previous articles, a good first step is to expand existing design and innovation frameworks to include a sustainability lens. This reminds us to aim for a positive impact on planet and people where we can, and to reduce harm where this has previously been prevalent.

Taking time to step back

When designing new products, services and ventures, we are used to zooming in on the detail of user experience and technical feasibility. But what happens when we zoom out, way out?

Our global economy unapologetically pushes for GDP growth. We are used to pulling one main lever and that is extracting the maximum financial value out of any business endeavour. Most of us know that this is burning through resources as if we had several planets at hand.

What if we could enact change by subscribing to economic models that in fact were sustainable?

Circular economy

The circular economy effectively closes the loop of our linear economy’s take-make-use-waste lifecycle (see image below). While products in a linear economy often are sourced from new raw materials and end up in landfill, circularity rethinks the ecosystem of stakeholders and products to keep resources cycling through time and time again.

When it comes to innovation, a linear economy often focuses on a snapshot of a product lifecycle – often the use stage, which simplifies out all waste and harm these products produce before and after the fact. What serves us better, is accounting for the full lifecycle and ecosystem of a product through circularity.

Linear economy moves through Take, Make, Use to Waste, Circular economy moves through Take, Make, Use and then back to Make in a cyclical motion

Doughnut economics

Another incredibly useful framework is the model of Doughnut economics by Kate Raworth. This framework offers a vision of an economy where the ecological Planetary Boundaries have been interconnected with the United Nations sustainable development goals.

For businesses, the Doughnut economics model aims to shift objectives away from purely extracting the maximum financial value towards bringing about the most benefit for society and the environment, still in an economically sound way.

Quite practically, the model offers us a safe zone between our ‘social foundation’ and ‘ecological ceiling’ to operate and innovate within.

Circularity, doughnuts and DVFS

Both Circularity and Doughnut economics are examples of established frameworks that let us consider the wider context in which our organisation, product or service operates, and how we can play our part in the systemic change we want to achieve.

When ‘doing innovation’ with your team, these frameworks offer a great contextual starting point for the sustainability lens in the DVFS framework. They can be translated into key requirements to keep in mind throughout each stage of the innovation journey, and they offer a shift in mindset for sustainably (re)designing your next product, service or business model.

Give it a try!