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Sustainability as a catalyst for innovation
Submitted by David Cook on February 23, 2009 - 6:50pm.
I recently had the opportunity to present to the European Parliament in Brussels. Organized by our Core Funding Partners Rohm & Haas, the theme was "Sustainability as a catalyst for innovation". I spoke about the link between economic and financial crises, and sustainability.
Thinking about the way we live without regard to limits - living beyond our means – with an emphasis on how sustainability has to be the context for innovation.
With 20 years experience of promoting sustainable development our conclusion is that, real progress requires three key elements, education, leadership and innovation. Each has to be pursued with sustainable development as the overriding context.
The need for that context to be highlighted now should be evident to all in the current turbulent times. Credit crunch, economic crunch and climate crunch are all part of the same problem – we are living beyond our means – the exact opposite of sustainable development. Innovation must now be accelerated with a much more responsible view of the world. Whatever Mr. Madoff has allegedly been doing with the funds of his investors, is precisely what we have all been doing with the resources of our planet.
We must surely now all recognize that there are limits to growth. We need innovation in technologies and services that can help us to live fulfilling lives within those limits. That may be the great challenge, the major adventure of our age.
And we must take a positive attitude. World leaders are talking about a Green New Deal. They see massive new investment in sustainable technologies and “green” jobs as being a key route to economic salvation. They can now see the signs that have been clear to many of us for a long time. Resistance to change, obdurate opposition to the inevitability of peak oil, years of denial about climate change, can no longer be allowed to stand in the way of smarter and sustainable progress. Our experience at TNS, including intensive strategy work with big corporations like Rohm & Haas, shows very clearly that sustainable development gives people a much more hopeful outlook once they get down to applying it. It is a great motivator and team builder – much needed characteristics in today’s gloomy scene.
We need innovation that responds to this challenge. We do not need a million more gadgets, fuelling consumption based on fictional credit. And the idea that sustainable products are intrinsically more expensive also needs to be ditched as the last line of defense for the denial lobby. Does anyone really believe that prices of unsustainable food, fuels, energy, and transport are real? When we start to add-in costs of climate recovery, pollution clean-up, and waste disposal, regulation and subsidy, we quickly realize that true costs have been hidden from the consumer for years. Now that bill has to be paid. Now cleaner, renewable ,sustainable goods start to look like the economic winners they have always promised to be.
To really spur innovation that is equal to the challenge of sustainable development needs a major new approach. It cannot be left to researchers, academics or technologists alone. It will need a much bigger cooperative effort including politicians, funders, market makers, corporate executives, public procurement specialists and many others. And it needs to be conducted across sectoral and geographic boundaries. There is perhaps as much challenge in innovating new ways of working together as there is in the technologies themselves. We need new cross-cultural dialogue. We need a new mind-set.
There should no longer be any question but that innovation must have sustainability as its guiding context, not just its catalytic convertor. All of us – politicians, bankers, investors, academics and researchers, need to wake-up and realize that a single Euro or Dollar spent on innovation that does not address sustainability, is a total waste of money. It would also be a tragic dereliction of our duty to the public, to consumers and to the future. There can be no such thing as a sub-prime planet, nature is far too diligent for that!