Is Innovation the solution to Business Sustainability?
Innovation, put simply, is the act of solving a problem. This is what distinguishes innovation from research, which is the act of figuring out how or why something works. When you're innovating, you're solving a problem using a new tool or methodology that hasn't been used before, with the goal of solving it faster, cheaper, or more efficiently than before.
There are many reasons for establishing innovation as an important goal on this increasingly fast path towards sustainability. Firstly, because sustainability is the right thing to do and innovation will allow us to become sustainable more quickly. But in and of itself, stating that something is "the right thing to do" is an intangible, nebulous concept - how do we convince people (and corporations) of this?
Thanks to shareholder and customer pressure, organizations are transforming their business models and operations to save energy, minimize pollution, and combat gender, racial and ethnic bias. In the long-term, sustainable practices can reduce costs, increase efficiency, and create a better society for the world at large. As more organizations embrace sustainable innovations, it is becoming increasingly clear that sustainability is no longer just a trend, but rather an essential part of doing business. Key to this change process is innovation.
Innovation is about solving concrete, real-word problems, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, innovation does not automatically require preceding research knowledge. You don't have to be an accomplished researcher or scientist to be a successful innovator. For example, with the advent of the steam engine, the innovation work preceded the understanding (or research) of the steam cycle; the cycle of thermodynamics that underlies the steam engine was only discovered much later. People, (who are in this case, innovators) simply realized that if you build a machine with certain parameters, it would work.
It is vital to recognize, however, that research can and often does lead to further innovation; once we understood the mechanism of the steam cycle, we were able to create more efficient machines that used the steam cycle. Innovation and research often go hand-in-hand, but there is no requirement of one for the other.
But how can innovation (whether it precedes or proceeds research) specifically aid our pursuit towards sustainability? Consider, for instance, lab grown meat. Startups such as Upside Foods are successfully growing meat directly from cells and plant feed, reducing the amount of pollution and waste generated by meat farming, as well as reducing animal suffering resulting from industrial farming.
Innovation is the act of taking an understanding of a topic or concept and applying it to a problem where it can be useful. So, even as technology changes, the definition of innovation doesn't change, though the pace and character of innovation definitely do. A hundred or two hundred years ago, innovation was mostly done by elite members of society because accessing knowledge was a privilege. You needed free time (and therefore, economic capital) to access books and libraries, and often you were limited to localized knowledge of your immediate neighborhood, your country, and what was available in your language. This meant that there were huge disparities in the ability to innovate between different countries and different social and economic classes.
Today, with information technologies and the internet, the number of people with access to knowledge has increased exponentially. This has leveled the playing field somewhat and has made innovation more accessible. Although there are still limitations based on language, socioeconomics, and geographic location, these have been significantly lessened; this change in access has meant that smaller communities are able to innovate almost as quickly or sometimes even quicker than areas served by big corporations.
Companies and corporations, however, are often guided by principles of short-term profit growth, which can conflict with the goal of sustainability. Corporate sustainability is a principle that tries to align these two goals. Businesses strive to be financially healthy and return a profit to ensure that their business remains solvent over the long-term. At the same time, it is important to ensure that the outcomes of business have a positive impact on society.
Companies that lack sustainability tend to do poorly over the long run for many reasons; not merely in terms of optics and public perception but also in terms of legal and financial risks. Unsustainable companies tend to lack innovation and remain stuck in a particular market, making them vulnerable to disruption by innovators (even those companies who are initially operating in a monopoly). When income is guaranteed, at least to a certain degree, people tend not to realize the importance of innovation. Innovation requires a level of long-term thinking from company leadership - and often a certain degree of monetary input. The output of these "innovation investments" pay off both directly as revenue growth, and indirectly - there is a strong preference for employees to want to work for and contribute to an organization that is sustainable, leading to a more engaged workforce.
Innovation is essential for improving sustainability and addressing the challenges facing our planet. By developing new technologies, practices, and solutions, we can create a more sustainable future and protect our planet for generations to come. Companies like Recursive are at the forefront of this effort. With projects such as predicting groundwater level in forests, generating high resolution weather maps, and improving healthcare outcomes, Recursive is making a real difference in the fight for sustainability. We can all play a role in supporting and promoting sustainable innovation.
Co-founder and CEO
Tiago holds a Master's degree in Theoretical/Mathematical Physics and a PhD in Biophysics from Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich. After graduation, he joined Google DeepMind as a research engineer. There he worked on a number cutting-edge research projects which led to publications in international machine learning conferences and scientific journals such as Nature. He then joined Cogent Labs, a multinational Tokyo based AI start-up, as a lead research scientist. In August 2020 co-founded Recursive Inc, and is currently CEO.