The sustainability spectrum

By Alexandra Pellas

24 May 2022

Discover what a sustainability lens on innovation means, and what you see when you look through one.

In a previous article, we discussed the essential addition of a sustainability lens to the innovation frameworks that are widely used to design the products, services and ventures of tomorrow. But what does a sustainability lens on innovation mean, and what do you see when you look through one?

A reminder of what the DVFS framework is

While many innovators and designers are familiar with the DVF toolbox, the methods, processes and tools for applying the Sustainability lens are still emerging.

Four circles represent desirability, viability, feasibility and sustainability. Where they all overlap is the sustainable innovation sweetspot.

The sustainability spectrum

The core concept of the Sustainability lens would arguably be found on a spectrum ranging from Not harming the environment and society all the way to Having a positive impact on the environment and society. Where your strategy or project falls within this range depends on many factors – however – the goal for all of us is to move towards the right on this spectrum as much and as urgently as possible.

Diagram showing that the sustainability spectrum goes from harming the environment and society to having a positive impact, which we should aim for.

What can action along the sustainability spectrum look like?

For a lot of organisations, this journey might start by identifying ways to reduce harm before having the opportunity to have a neutral or positive impact. For many companies, this first stretch might be covered by strategic objectives around sustainability and closing gaps towards best practice before focusing on innovation. Once you've exhausted best practice improvements and look towards more radical innovation around business models, products and services, you can move towards having a net positive impact. If you start afresh with a new venture, aim straight for the right hand side of the spectrum.

For organisations operating in the space of physical goods, this shift often includes unpacking the whole lifecycle of a product - taking the environment, workers and users into account from the manufacturing to disposal of a product and all the operational implications this involves.

For organisations in the digital space, the context is a bit different, but ultimately, the physical aspects of digital (devices used, networks, data centers etc.) as well as the (potentially negative) impact of a digital product on its users need to be taken into account.

Sustainability can be a supporting or leading lens

When applying the DVF framework, it is common to start with the Desirability lens - which centres around user needs. When adding the sustainability lens into the DVFS framework, it is still often logical to start with user needs when designing a general product, while your organisation makes its way towards the right on the sustainability spectrum above.

When the starting point is innovation specifically focusing on environmental or societal challenges, the sustainability lens in turn becomes the natural starting point. By looking at environmental and societal needs first, we ideate and innovate around how business models, technology and users can come together for sustainable solutions in desirable, viable and feasible ways.

Whether a leading or supporting lens, including sustainability as a key requirement throughout the product and venture lifecycle is a fundamental step in the direction we need.