Sustainable innovations are about collaboration in networks

A presentation intended for Kvantum Science Coffee, by Pauliina Ulkuniemi, 23rd April 2020.

Sustainable innovations are the kinds of inventions that help to minimize the harm or more importantly, increase the benefits that are done to our natural and societal environment by a certain product, service, or activity. In fact, they are not just inventions, but solutions that are also attractive for market actors and thus are marketable.

Advancing sustainable innovations has been at the agenda for policymakers for a long time now and a multitude of innovation mechanisms have been put in place to ensure technological development towards more sustainable solutions. Both regulative push, as well as incentives and support for developing sustainable innovations, have been introduced to many industries. Often the role of governments and regulative frameworks has been emphasised to make things really happen in many industries.

For example, research institutes across the world are working hard to develop technologies that enable more sustainable solutions. They act within the frameworks of funding instruments that emphasise heavily the work towards sustainable development. This work bases on thorough basic research conducted in universities across the world and research that is conducted in an intense collaboration between universities, companies, and other research institutes and stakeholders. Through all of this, a lot of technological advancements are being achieved in the light of sustainability. However, the path of such technological break-thoughts from the laboratories to the everyday use of consumers and businesses may be tricky and long. Why is that?


Who is responsible for advancing sustainability?

In sustainable development, recently especially the role of businesses in advancing sustainable development has been emphasised. It is not enough that things are done only after regulative frameworks and incentives are in place, but we need to act faster than that and renew many of the existing industries towards sustainability. Sustainable innovations can be brought to the markets after companies are forced by regulations to do so, or some actor sees entrepreneurial opportunities and starts offering sustainable solutions relying on the functioning of the market mechanisms. Of course, there is the problem that sometimes the sustainable solution may be more costly, complex, or otherwise not able to compete with the traditional, non-sustainable solutions in the market. Then it comes down to customer preferences and regulative impacts, whether sustainability innovation can win the market. Indeed, sustainable innovations most likely always need efforts from both the public and private sectors.

In fact, the question of who should have the main responsibility in advancing sustainability, whether it is the public sector, private sector or the customers with their preferences, sometimes seems to have similarities with the everlasting discussion entitled “somebody should do something”. Somebody, but not me or us.


Why do we need collaboration?

However, instead of passing the buck between different actors, in research focusing on sustainable innovations, the way sustainable innovations are developed and diffused to industries is seen as more important. The reason why it is not easy to determine, who should take responsibility in advancing sustainability, is because it is not the responsibility of either of these actors alone, but of all of them. Why can’t we rely on either regulation or entrepreneurial opportunities alone?

Sustainable innovations have certain complexities related to what we have used to know about innovations in general. Sustainable innovations are assessed not only through economic, but also environmental and social bottom lines. This makes the ultimate outcome of the innovation difficult to model and assess, as all these aspects need to be considered. What may be excellent for the environment, may result in societal challenges in societies that are changed due to the innovation, for example. This is one reason why sustainable innovations typically require multidisciplinary understanding, and therefore collaboration of actors possessing expertise from different fields.

Another characteristic of sustainable innovation that puts forward the integral role of collaboration, is indeed the role played by actors across sectors in the development and diffusion of the innovation. As sustainable innovations are not always the winning solution economically, the market mechanism alone does not ensure the wide-scale use of the sustainable solution in the industry, but also regulation to support this is needed. In addition to regulation, another rising power here is the sustainable consumption, meaning the customers that place value also to sustainability. For sustainable innovations to fly, multiple stakeholders’ input and perspectives need to be included.


Are we able to collaborate?

The need for collaboration seems evident, but how to make real co-creation between these actors happen, is another question. Collaboration networks can be understood through the actors involved, activities they perform in the collaboration as well as resources that are employed, exchanged, and created in the collaboration. That is why it is great that research and innovation activities are not conducted in isolation, but increasingly as a part of different kinds of multidisciplinary and cross-sector collaboration platforms. In such platforms, actors can network, engage in activities together, and share and create new resources that help in achieving knowledge that results in sustainable innovations and enables their wide-scale use. As an example, we have therefore initiated the InStreams Hub.   

As its main role, “InStreams Hub focuses on cross-disciplinary inorganic materials research and engineering and the management and utilization of inorganic side streams. It develops sustainable value chains and has high interest to put scientific research into practice. The Hub also provides research-based information to support decision-making and participates in public debate.” We thus aim to advance deep engagement between researchers of various disciplines, companies and public actors to co-create sustainable solutions that make a real difference for the future society. This can be achieved not only by the research results but also through the experts that adopt the collaborative and responsible mindset.


More about: InStreams Hub

Last updated: 27.4.2020