Sustainability Innovation

Sustainability Innovation:

Mapping the Territory

Paper by Michael Blowfield, Wayne Visser & Finbarr Livesey


Innovation is a well-studied area of business behaviour, and is increasingly seen as a crucial element in the private sector’s responses to the challenges of sustainability.  However, what exactly is meant by innovation in a sustainability context is not very clear.  This paper makes the case for a more reflexive and structured approach to understanding innovation for sustainability in order to understand what it shares in common with innovation more broadly, where it is unique, what the gaps are in our current knowledge, and what might be the consequence of these gaps.  In building this understanding, we draw on theoretical and empirical studies, normative and non-normative approaches, and descriptive and instrumental analyses.  We employ a framework that distinguishes between the enablers of sustainability innovation (SI), the different types of agent that influence innovation for sustainability and the intra-organisational processes that take place (especially within companies).


Increasingly, business is referred to as an essential element in meeting the challenges of sustainability: not only to amend its behaviour so as to reduce negative impacts, but also to use its strengths to overcome barriers more effectively than other sectors of society are able to do.  Innovation is one such area of perceived business strength, and now business and government are encouraged to think in terms of sustainability innovation to meet such demands as green technology, energy efficiency and social enterprise.  It is often claimed that the challenges of sustainability require different approaches to (and perhaps new models of) business.  Yet there has been little rigorous analysis of if and how sustainability requires new ways of thinking about innovation.  The main purpose of this  paper is to examine what we know about sustainability as the determinant of a genuinely different form of innovation, and to set out a framework for a more reflexive and structured approach to sustainability innovation in future.

To understand if sustainability innovation (SI) differs from other models of innovation, let us first consider what innovation means.  When discussing whether innovation (in its broad sense) is qualitatively different from innovation applied for sustainability, it is important to have a clear sense of the boundary of the terms being used. One of the broadest definitions of innovation states that it is “… the successful exploitation of new ideas” (DTI 2003). Unsurprisingly, exploitation in this context has become synonymous with introduction to market and so this definition is one that presupposes a market-based assessment for the outcomes of the innovation process. The bias in most discussions of innovation towards a commercial, for-profit setting with a market mechanism for price signalling and managing distribution should be acknowledged. Equally, this may be where innovation for sustainability distinguishes itself from innovation more broadly.

In terms of market led or company-based innovation there has been an acknowledged shift in recent years towards more dynamic and networked models of innovation (Chesbrough 2003) away from old linear models. This is well described by Rothwell in his five generations of innovation models (Rothwell quoted in Tidd, Bessant et al. 2001).

None of the models of innovation, either descriptive or analytical, presuppose the set of goals which the process is trying to achieve. In that sense, there is no immediate difference between SI and innovation in its broadest sense. However, it is the context for sustainability that implies biases towards different types of innovation …

Continue reading

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”download” new_window=”false” link=””]Pdf[/button] Sustainability Innovation (paper)

Related pages

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=””]Page[/button] Making a Difference (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=””]Link[/button] Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (website)

Cite this article

Blowfield, M., Visser, W. & Livesey, F. (2007) Sustainability Innovation: Mapping the Territory, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Paper Series, No. 2.

Share this page