Be authentic, follow through, and think holistically: Editorial thoughts on the virtuous circle that is sustainable innovation
Cosmina L. Voinea, Nadine Roijakkers, and Ward Ooms
Mainstreaming sustainable innovation: A multifarious perspective
The view that firms should aspire to obtain ‘triple wins’, in terms of a triple bottom line (integrating social, environmental, and economic goals; El- kington, 1994), rather than merely aspire to generate profits, has existed for well over two decades. This view took shape as sustainability and gradually grew to be on the agenda of not only environmentalists but also politicians and policy makers, via the Brundtland report (1987), generally known by its name Our Common Future, and management scientists and business leaders alike. In fact, such views have even become stronger in recent years, as doing business responsibly and to the benefit of the firm, society, and environment at the same time is more and more regarded as a moral obligation of firms (Longoni & Cagliano, 2018).
This development at large has led to the proliferation of concepts that are conceived to help firms improve their triple bottom line. Studies on eco- innovation have focused on the environmental impact of innovation (e.g. Carrillo-Hermosilla, Del Rio, & Konnola, 2010), and thus part of the triple bottom line. These studies discuss how innovation may lead to more eco- efficiency of processes and products, or even create wholly new systems that are more effective in meeting the requirements of the environment or even contribute to it. Other studies have focused on the social impact of organizations, via the concept of social innovation, which has sparked research interest in four intellectual communities after 2002 and each with their distinct foci (Van der Have & Rubalcaba, 2016). A common denominator across research on social innovation is its impact — at some level of analysis — on social problems.
Yet despite the considerable research attention at least two higher level problems persist with regard to the study of sustainable innovation. First, from a research point of view there should be more attention on how firms may reconcile and truly simultaneously cater to the needs of their triple goals. Eco-innovation and social innovation research are both open to the understanding of system-level impacts of innovation (e.g. Carrillo-Hermosilla et al., 2010; Van der Have & Rubalcaba, 2016), yet by nature and terminology they are narrowly focused on either the environmental bottom line or the social bottom line nonetheless. Relatively little research has been conducted to understand how these two goals may jointly be integrated with traditional economic goals. Sustainable innovation for the triple bottom line should be understood at this system level, which is not surprisingly dubbed ‘edge of chaos’ by some (Seebode, Jeanrenaud, & Bessant, 2012). Second, what also clearly follows from research on sustainable innovation is that academia may be expecting more from business (sustainable innovation as moral obligation) than business is currently able to deliver. That is, empirical research goes to show that doing business to attain triple wins is certainly not commonplace among firms, and that many firms still focus on compliance or - at best — eco-efficiency (e.g. Longoni & Cagliano, 2018; Seebode et al., 2012).
Complex sustainability challenges have become motives to innovate, reasons for novel innovation trajectories, which could enhance firms’ competitiveness while contributing to sustainable development. Multifarious sustainability issues have thus proven stimulating not for research alone, but across the world, as sustainability challenges are being transformed into opportunities and are sparking fundamental interest in the business community. Yet we established that despite its promise for academia and business, sustainable innovation is not straightforward or commonplace. These observations give rise to the study of the interconnected nature of firms’ innovation undercurrents and sustainability.
In order for sustainable innovation to truly become mainstream practice in business, we need to find out how organizations can strategically and efficiently accommodate sustainability and innovation, preferably in such a manner that they accomplish value capturing (for firms, stakeholders, and society) rather than merely create a return on the social responsibility agenda. The aim of this book is both to advance our conceptual understanding of sustainable innovation and to conduct in-depth empirical research into the complex concept of sustainable innovation from four perspectives. We take multiple perspectives in order to understand sustainable innovation’s potential shifts and barriers, its benefits, and outcomes from all angles. The first theme in this book takes a strategic perspective. It considers the inception of sustainable innovation and presents a set of studies about the business models for sustainable innovation. These studies are reported in Chapter 2 (Oskam, de Man, and Bossink), Chapter 3 (de Langen, Sanderse, and Perez Salgado), and Chapter 4 (Winkler). We summarize the chapters’ aims, methodology, and main findings in Table 1.1. Second, we take a network perspective on the way firms and other organizations coordinate their efforts for sustainable innovation by using networks. The studies included in this thematic section are Chapter 5 (Franco), Chapter 6 (Cobben, Maes, and Roijakkers), and Chapter 7 (Bigliardi, Filippelli, and Galati). We list the aims, methodology, and main findings of these studies in Table 1.2. Third, we take an inside look in organizations that engage in sustainable innovation, adopting a process perspective on sustainable innovation. The chapters that make up the third thematic section are Chapter 8 (Steinmo), Chapter 9 (Ahn and Kim), and Chapter 10 (Boonstra and Brillo). Table 1.3 presents the aims, methodology, and main findings of these studies. Fourth and final, the chapters in the last thematic section in this book address the important issue of (measuring) impact of sustainable innovation. This area of research is particularly underdeveloped as it stands, yet the research book offers five enticing conceptual chapters and chapters with original empirics: Chapter 11 (Kensen and Orcherton), Chapter 12 (Relou and Hubers), Chapter 13 (Dommerholt, Soltanifar, and Bessant), Chapter 14 (Castaldi), and Chapter 15 (Gunarathne and Peiris). The studies are outlined in Table 1.4.
We proceed this editorial by outlining each perspective covered in the thematic sections of this research book on sustainable innovation. Furthermore, we present a brief research agenda and managerial implications for each of the thematic sections.