The most urgent innovation we need now is to stop innovation from depleting natural resources or harming the environment and people.

Young Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg has inspired a global movement on sustainability, calling for world leaders to be responsible for the impact of current decisions on the environment and future generations.

In an interview with The Guardian, Thunberg said: “We must realize this is a crisis, and we must do what we can now to spread awareness about this and to put pressure on the people in power.”

If she is right regarding the necessity to be aware of climate change, the young activist is missing the main point which is: Innovation issues at large, innovators in particular. And yet, that is the main concern. As a result, global environmental issues such as the seventh continent—an island of plastics drifting in the international waters of the Pacific Ocean—remind us that pursuing innovation at the expense of the environment can be dangerous and detrimental. 

Evidently, challenges like these could be better addressed if the next generation of corporate and political leaders are more conscientious in the way they innovate. However, how can we drive thoughtful and responsible innovation in the future if it is largely missing today? I believe we should strive towards two goals. 

First, our education system needs to inspire a new type of innovator, one that is informed about sustainability and thoughtful about the long-term impacts of their actions. Second, more corporations should practice responsible innovation to lead the way for future generations. 

Educating a new archetype of innovator 

Innovation as a concept is not new. Humans have been doing it since the dawn of civilization. Whilst the rapid pace of innovation has given rise to a wide range of commercial applications, it has also come with catastrophic and irreversible consequences. Populations and animal species are disappearing, and the large-scale development and manufacturing of consumer goods is contributing to the depletion of our natural resources. 

At this rate, humanity can no longer innovate at the pace of the past several decades without thinking or caring for the impact of innovation on our planet.

To address this, we need to inspire a new archetype of innovators—informed innovators—who assess short, medium and long-term opportunities and risks. It is important that this next generation of professionals are responsible citizens so that, when they are developing new solutions and products, they ask themselves questions like “what could I do to make my organization sustainable?” and “what is the impact of my actions on the ecosystem?”

An education in philosophy can play a crucial part in nurturing these new talents, as it gives students inquisitive mindsets and critical thinking abilities. This will guide them to constantly question the status quo when they enter the workforce. They will seek to challenge normative corporate behaviors, question pre-existing assumptions, and constantly reflect on the need for improvement. 

More corporate champions wanted 

We also need more corporations to trigger the pivot to responsible innovation. One champion that comes to mind is Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, an American retailer of outdoor clothing and gear. 

From the first climbing spikes he began to reuse in the early 1960s, he has made product recycling central to his business strategy. In 1972, Chouinard took a big business risk by replacing pitons with aluminum chocks to reduce the damage of the climbing gear on rocks. The concept of “clean climbing” was so powerful that it was readily adopted by professional climbers and enthusiasts. 

Another good role model is Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop. Under her leadership, the company was one of the first beauty and cosmetics brands in the late 1980s to promote fair trade with developing countries. It was also one of the first to prohibit the use of ingredients tested on animals. With these moves, her brand fundamentally shaped ethical consumerism and Roddick continues to be involved in activism and campaigning for environmental and social issues. 

Apart from role models like Yvon Chouinard and Anita Roddick who can inspire our next generation of talent, corporations without well-intentioned and charismatic founders can still drive the practice of responsible innovation. Companies who are serious about this approach should develop business strategies and goals to reconcile profits and ecosystem effects.

For example, in 2007, Danone became the first agribusiness player in the world to position itself in the health market, establishing itself as a specialist in medical nutrition through its Nutricia brand, which defined a strategic compass that accounts for economic results and the needs of various stakeholders. Danone subsequently acquired the American company WhiteWave in 2017 to innovate on plant-based products that are nutritionally superior and more environmentally beneficial than dairy yogurts. Most recently, the company announced that in 2020, it is committed to offering a 100% salt- and sugar-free range of products.

Another approach companies can consider on an operational level is to use methodologies including design thinking and change management to encourage change-making within the organization. Some companies have embarked on incubation activities associated with uplifting low-income groups. For example, Schneider Electric has a program dedicated to increasing access to affordable and reliable energy services to rural areas that are ‘off-grid’. Since 2009, the program has concentrated efforts on three complementary initiatives, which include the funding of entrepreneurs and investment in companies in electricity supply and access, the creation of new business models, and the development of training in energy trade jobs. 

The world today urgently needs more informed and responsible innovators. Companies can no longer pretend to ignore the reality of their current approach. Moving forward, policymakers, corporate leaders and researchers must work together to reconsider their innovation processes and implement management indicators to account for negative externalities of their decisions and actions.

Having come so far, now is not the time to stand still. After all, driving change for the better is at the very core of innovation.