Pseudo-innovations and hasty changes usually do more harm than good. They undermine the future viability of entrepreneurship and confidence in an economy orientated towards the common good, and often lead to the demise of companies.

What’s more, climate change and the Earth Overshoot Day, occurring earlier every year, show us across the board that we need a quantum leap in innovation.

We live sustainability only as cosmetics

Crafting inventions and improvements that are truly beneficial and that can be sustained for a long time is a skill that requires mastery. Today, we are not just miles but, so to speak, light years away from genuine sustainability.

If we wanted to live up to it today, our economy would collapse, as it has been geared towards unlimited consumption, luxury, profit maximisation and constant growth since industrialisation. We must swiftly transition towards true sustainability to protect future generations and the planet. The clock is ticking.

Anyone who is serious about sustainability and innovation and doesn’t just want to be “en vogue” or verbally “politically correct” needs to have a close look at these issues. Because a carefree “keep it up”, surfing on the fashion wave of these buzzwords will not save us in the end. We need entirely new economic models, not just cosmetic measures.

Sustainability was already an issue 300 years ago

The term ‘sustainability’ is derived from the Latin word ‘sustinere’. Hans Carl von Carlowitz (1645-1714), electoral Saxon chamber councillor, is considered the term’s creator. In 1713, in his Sylviculture Oeconomica, he proposed “sustainable” forest management, as he was concerned because the growing hunger for wood in the mining industry was leaving the forests in a desolate state. His solution: a balance between the harvesting of old trees and the regrowth of young trees.

At the time, this was a pioneering approach. Today’s concepts are similar. They are assuming that the natural systems involved can cope with a certain level of resource utilisation in the long term without suffering damage.

Faulty reasoning

However, this approach of utilising natural resources to the limits of what is supposedly “sustainable” falls short. This is because the average life expectancy of people and the global population are constantly increasing.

In 1830, the average life expectancy in Western Europe was 33 years; in 1900, it was 31 years worldwide.

The second industrial revolution brought about one of the most important inventions in 1909: the large-scale industrial production of artificial fertiliser through ammonia synthesis, which the German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch from BASF succeeded  in producing after 20,000 trials.

This achievement became one of the most essential weapons in the fight against the previously overpowering scourge of hunger. Within just one century, it enabled the immense increase in average life expectancy worldwide to 73.4 years today. And an explosion in the world’s population. In the year 1000, there were only around 0.3 billion people on the planet; in 1900, there were 1.65 billion and in 1950, there were already 2.5 billion. We have now passed the eight billion mark.

This breathtaking development severely impacts our planet’s limited natural resources.

The limit of resilience

Apart from the question of whether it is ethically and morally justifiable or even necessary to maximise the exploitation of natural resources, it would be unwise to utilise them to the limits of what is just tolerable. After all, if a fatal event were to occur, we would risk irreparably damaging the regenerative capacity of the natural systems affected. We are already experiencing this in many areas through overexploitation.

Rethinking innovation

We must finally rethink our approach to innovation. This requires not only science and politics but, above all, entrepreneurship as a critical shaper of practical economic activity.

Let’s learn from the master of sustainability − Mother Nature. It not only makes do with what it needs to survive, but also maintains a symbiotic system that manages without a declared rubbish dump on the planet. Everything in it is in a cycle; nothing is left over, useless or worthless. Everything is recycled, reused and reutilised. Only in this way it is possible to live in genuine sustainability, which follows solely the principle of “as much as necessary but as little as possible”.

When developing innovations and improvements, always keep the top Mikado rule in mind: don’t move any other ‘sticks’ (if possible).When developing innovations and improvements, always keep the top Mikado rule in mind: don’t move any other ‘sticks’ (if possible).

Mikado and the problem of conservation law

The fine art of successful sustainable innovation has much in common with the Mikado game. The aim is to remove one by one the 41 wooden sticks lying chaotically on the table without moving any other sticks.

The law of conservation of energy in physics states that it is possible to convert energy in a system into different forms, but not to generate new energy or destroy energy. The same seems to apply to changes. I call this the ‘law of conservation of problems’.

Problems can be solved, but never in isolation, without side effects. In our complex reality, every solution to a problem merely shifts the givens and inevitably creates changes and new issues elsewhere because everything is connected to everything else.

Science speaks of “second or third-order effects”, making it difficult for us to assess the ultimate consequences of things.

Anyone can be innovative. Innovation and improvement approaches are typically developed with good intentions. However, those who change too quickly, too much, out of a rush to change or a flight to the front, run the risk that the change, the innovation, will not become an improvement but rather a worsening, a pseudo-innovation. Thus, a solution to a problem that, in retrospect, creates many more problems than it solves.

Since the 19th century, science and research have led us to believe that thinking is a creative act. But what we have neglected in our fast-paced world, however, is reflection. Digestion, so to speak. That is the real issue. Thinking things through to the end is tedious and takes time. Our time doesn’t like effort or slowness. But the game works differently!

Nine rules for successful sustainable innovation

1. Customer benefit: Pay attention to the customer benefit perceived from the outside! This is the key to a company’s future viability. Studies strongly suggest that around 70 per cent of innovations disappoint here. The rate is even worse for digital innovations.

2. The Mikado rule: When developing innovations and improvements, always keep the top Mikado rule in mind: don’t move any other ‘sticks’ (if possible)!

3. Reflection: Take the time to examine cautiously for whom a particular innovation is practical but for whom it is not or is even harmful. Ask yourself: What does it do, what does it achieve, what does it actually trigger, what happens afterwards, etc? Reflecting on innovation is an essential part of innovation!

4. Fan things out: Especially when developing improvements with a significant impact, fan out the entire broad spectrum of effects using sufficient samples to analyse what this innovation ultimately means for people, the economy, nature and the environment.

For suboptimal side effects, helpful modifications or accompanying measures must be developed to mitigate their consequences.

5. Networked thinking: Before finalising a development step, it’s essential to consider the results in context and as a whole, and only then take the next step forward.

Innovation alone will not save us; innovation on its own has never done any good because we don’t know in advance which force will take innovation into its hands and then do what with it. Think of drones, for example. Only a networked, well-housed, organically embedded innovation can achieve something positive. Innovation in itself does not accomplish this.

6. Culture of change: We urgently need a culture of innovation in which changes are scrutinised to determine whether they are effectively meaningful, sustainable improvements. However, this only works over time, not on the drawing board. You can talk up everything initially and be convinced in theory, but practice breaks the theory.

7. Teething troubles: Not every innovation or new development is fully mature. Many have teething troubles or only show their negative consequences on use. For this reason, you should always wait until the innovation has proven to be valuable over time. Only then should it be launched on the market.

8. No deceptive packaging: The times when misleading packaging or greenwashing can be sold as credible sustainability are inevitably ending.

9. Golden mean: Indeed, the bar is set very high, and a perfect solution is difficult to achieve due to the law of conservation of problems. That’s why we should strive for the golden mean without making compromises. Only such solutions will lead us to genuine sustainability over time. Everything else leads to a dead end.

Reinhold M. Karner, FRSA, is an entrepreneurship and start-up evangelist, multiple chairman (e.g. AP Valletta), corporate philosopher, entrepreneur, author, university lecturer and fellowship connector of the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) for Malta and Austria.

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