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Targeted Innovation


It’s easy to get wrapped up in the organisation you work for and as a result, most corporate sustainability strategies are company-centric: focused on improving business practice rather than tackling global challenges.

However, a new era is ahead where creative teams step outside their firm’s activities and focus on where they can contribute to fixing broken systems through new business opportunities. Moreover, many of these endeavours are part of the net positive movement, an attempt to restore some of what’s been lost – such as forests, flowing rivers, a stable climate and clean air.

Targeted innovation is where companies aim new kinds of commercial propositions at the big social and environmental hotspots in society.  They build on their own competencies and creatively intervene within their sector or adjacent sectors to tackle the local and global challenges.

If we take our current system of mobility we can see the pollution and congestion that go with it reaching critical levels in many parts of the globe and yet much of the automotive sector remains stuck in designing more fuel-efficient vehicles. But, some are engaged in more of a step change.

BMW and Nissan are responding to the need for smarter mobility, the changing aspirations among customers, and rise of Zipcar.  They are intervening in new ways:  getting serious about both electric vehicles and new kinds of mobility services in a few key markets that promote collaborative short-term car use.

Smaller and lesser known enterprises, such as Zoom and iCarsClub, also see the benefits of targeted innovation and are taking car sharing services to parts of Asia where smog and crowded roads are becoming unmanageable. Zoom provides hourly rentals in Bangalore (Bengaluru) and iCarsClub offers a peer-to-peer service in Singapore.  These enterprises bring experiences gained in the west and present the benefits of car sharing over car ownership to customers.

Our power system is also in urgent need of fixing.  Interestingly, fixes are emerging from an adjacent sector: retail.  Ikea and Kingfisher offer micro-renewables and energy services as part of their net positive commitments.   Ian Cheshire, the CEO of Kingfisher, has been vocal on the opportunities for pinching customers from utilities and capitalising on the distrust and lack of innovation in the power sector.

What if others enter the fray?  Positive and lucrative interventions from retailers and other sectors could start to transform the way we produce and consume energy.

Philips has capitalised on the urgent need to address other systemic challenges – healthcare, lighting and pollution – in key regions.  It recently diverted sales of air purification devices to where they were needed most within various parts of Asia.  As a result of tackling such challenges, the company has substantially improved its balance sheet.

These events prompt questions around where else shifts are starting to take place that provide new opportunities.  A milestone was passed recently, with half a million buildings in the UK now installed with solar panels.  How might home insurers provide support in this space?

Another example is new developments in manufacturing .  The “maker movement” is a response to the increasing appetite for people to train up on making things using welding equipment or 3D printers, and “collaborative production” brings customers and designers together in physical or virtual spaces to co-produce goods.  Nike, Puma, Adidas and Converse are among the few in the clothing industry who involve customers in the design process, and some of them go further to build in sustainability options.

The food system is witnessing some of the big catering companies exploring greener and healthier diets.  Sodexo is part of the Meatless Monday campaign and Bon Appetit Caterers provide meals with less meat and more vegetable content.

The next tranche of questions follows: how can retailers, insurers, ICT companies and all kinds of service providers capitalise on and accelerate moves towards smart mobility, smart energy, smart buildings, smart manufacturing and smart food?  The answers will lead to more targeted and successful innovations for outward looking businesses.

(This piece previously appeared at http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/transformative-innovation-business-global-challenges).

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