Blog: Escaping the innovation dilemma in sustainable development

Blog: Escaping the innovation dilemma in sustainable development


Nicholas Davis, Head of Society and Innovation, Member of the Executive Committee at the World Economic Forum has contributed the following blog post to the inno4SD network. The post is co-published with the WEF.


There’s no doubt that there is increasing awareness of the importance of sustainable development among states, citizens and organisations. The Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Survey from Spring 2015 indicated that climate change is seen as the top global threat, with 46% of respondents “very concerned” about the issue, and in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, crises related to extreme weather, failure to adapt to climate change and water crises are consistently in the top ten when assessed for both likelihood and impact.

This increased awareness has been accompanied by a proliferation of strategies for directing activity and investment towards more environmentally and socially-sustainable systems, which has both enriched and confused the dialogue around sustainability in general, and the role of innovation in particular.

Many of the most popular strategies for thinking about how we can get to sustainable development are economic framings: Green Growth expands economics to embrace the environment; the Circular Economy prescribes material flows to realise a net economic and environmental benefit; while the Low-Carbon Economy excludes or limits certain types of activity based on their associated emissions of greenhouse gases.

All three of these strategies rely on innovation to make them realizable, operational, and, indeed, sustainable. This innovation is not just in terms of new tools and technologies that accelerate change but in terms of new incentives, norms and economic systems that allow and encourage new forms of individual, organizational, and community behaviour. This is why the COP21 agenda includes an entire day focused on “innovation in action” featuring discussions on “Low Carbon Innovation”, “Sustainable Supply Chain Innovation & the Circular Economy” and “Innovation for Business Advantage”.

An increasing focus on innovation in this area means it might also be a good time to revisit some of the core principles behind sustainable development. Embedded within the definition of sustainable development formalized by the Brundtland Commission in Our Common Future, there are important nuances that should inform the role of innovation. Under that definition, development is sustainable when it “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This means that as we innovate within business, government and civil society, we should remember to; recognise the needs of a wide variety of people, including those unable to attend the major sustainable development and climate change meetings; understand the relevance and diversity of abilities, in terms of the capacity of individuals and communities to provide for these needs as well as hard limits that stem from ecosystems and the environment; embrace a time-frame that goes beyond the short-term interests of today’s leaders and citizens, spanning multiple generations and thereby changing our ideas about what constitutes resilience and efficiency; accept our inter-dependency in a global commons, and acknowledge that the goal of collective prosperity can be undermined by the misuse of resources by competing groups.

How can these “first principles” of sustainable development help guide this renewed focus on innovation? Perhaps their biggest contribution might be to get us out of a troubling dilemma: the world seems caught between two technological paradigms, neither of which is delivering the innovation needed to realise global sustainable development.

In the first paradigm, countries and communities are continuing to invest in and are even increasingly reliant on “dumb” transport, energy and material infrastructure that are resource- and emissions-heavy, involve long investment lead times and are relatively inflexible. This infrastructure is, in most cases, delivering diminishing economic and social returns while locking us into fossil fuel-dependent futures that actively work against the strategies outlined above. In this world, innovation is (slowly) shifting us from systems “very bad” to “possibly less bad but still pretty awful” with regard to the goals and principles of sustainable development. In many cases the needs of stakeholders are narrowly defined, abilities are underestimated, time-frames for decisions are made in the short-term with long-term consequences, all driven by mutual mistrust and competition.

In the second paradigm, we see the allure of existing, old-style systems being disrupted by digitally-enabled, constantly-communicating “smart” devices and objects. While the promise of such innovation is huge, thanks to new ways to track resources, optimise resource flows and increase transparency throughout value chains, currently these technologies are doing more to meet a seemingly insatiable demand for polarised opinions and endless entertainment, rather than changing behaviours and resource use on a wide scale. Beyond this is the fear that the “zero marginal cost” nature of digital systems could lock economies into a different but equally unsustainable future – one where inequality of status, power, and in some cases welfare is even more firmly technologically embedded, and where choice and freedom is limited to the ability to customise one’s choice of distraction from reality.

Neither of these paradigms is where we want to end up – a world of simply doing less bad is still one that takes us further away from the goal of environmental and social sustainability, while an extremely disruptive world that delivers inequality disguised as opportunity is scarcely any better. Even worse would be to combine the two.

Thankfully, the Brundtland principles help us escape this dilemma.

First and most obviously, we can all benefit by consciously accepting that we are faced with a multi-generational task that affects all of us in an interdependent world. We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the timescale of the challenge of shifting away from brown, linear and high-carbon systems to ones that are green, circular and low-carbon – we need to accept this is a marathon, not a sprint, and plan accordingly so we can finish the race.

This time-frame awareness shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not act now, nor to keep investing in systems that we know take us further away from our goal, but a clear and common understanding of the scale of the challenge and the embedded energy and financial costs of alternative systems is critical.

Second, we need to be more deliberate and thoughtful around how we shape the values of these systems as we proceed to develop and adopt new approaches and technologies. We cannot let the speed of digital transformation overwhelm citizens, policy makers and organisations and end up with a normal that is characterised by new, even more embedded forms of unequal development. Instead, conversations at COP21 and beyond should look to how we can consciously embed the principles of sustainable development – needs, abilities, time-frames and inter-dependency – as core values within innovation agendas and strategies.

Third, remembering that the point of all of this is to meet our needs while enabling future generations to meet their needs highlights that sustainable development is a process, not an end-point. The core innovation challenge is to build the core values of sustainable development into the systems that are shaping our physical and social worlds as they inevitably change, not to deliver “magic bullet” solutions to complex challenges that span geographies, groups of people and time.

As the COP21 agenda indicates, we are at a stage in global conversations on sustainable development where we are actively promoting innovation to support green growth, the circular economy and/or the low carbon economy. Let’s make sure that as we innovate for sustainable development, we keep the core principles of sustainable development in mind.

EU flagThis project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 641974.