emerging themes


In my previous incarnation as a blogger I mostly wrote about entertainment-related things. But one of the themes that quickly emerged was a discussion of the various projects that my cats got up to – including building a particle accelerator, starting a management consulting company, computer repair (see above) and making a trebuchet. I probably won’t be writing too much about those projects here. However, a couple of innovation-related themes have emerged pretty quickly.

One of those is time, another is sustainable innovation. As I mentioned before, I think that these two issues are closely connected. John’s three horizons discussion is also strongly time-dependent. I’ve been talking with Alex Stathakis, the Project Manager for the UQBS Sustainable Business Unit about sustainable innovation as well. Alex definitely thinks using a long time frame, and he gets frustrated when firms and policymakers are unable to do the same. I can see why. It’s similar to the way John & I react when we run across someone who looks at Horizon 3 issues as simply being those that will come into play some arbitrary time in the future, rather than thinking about innovations that will transform their industry.

While time is one tricky concept to get a handle on when thinking about sustainable innovation, even just defining innovation in a useful way can prove difficult. When you’re taking the long view, new ideas that simply improve the efficiency of the status quo don’t look very innovative, even if they’re in a ‘green’ area. From this perspective, innovation is primarily concerned with game-changing ideas. On the other hand, when you define innovation as only being disruptive ideas, then a huge percentage of firms and people will (rightfully) decide that they are not innovative. This can have drawbacks too. John & I are doing some research projects with a couple of firms that are pretty resource-intensive (carbon-intensive too). These firms often think of themselves as not being innovative at all. The problem with this is that if they don’t think they can innovate, then they don’t have any chance at all to change to more sustainable approaches to their business. So we end up emphasising the importance of the incremental innovations that they regularly execute. It’s only by getting them to see the effectiveness of these small innovations that we can help them see the bigger possibilities that are open to them. So these cases require a much more expansive definition of innovation.

I’m still not sure how to best formulate these ideas about time and sustainability. One of the whole points of blogging about these things is to help sort out what I think. Another is to elicit some feedback. I remain convinced that innovation has to play a central role in moving to more sustainable business models. John Thackara has some interesting ideas along these lines as well. In any case, I need to make some progress in my thinking here, because it’s pretty clear that my cats aren’t going to bring in much revenue with their crazy schemes…

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.