How to Be Radical: Three Ways to Accelerate Sustainability
Taking your big idea to implementation requires vision, openness, and partnerships. Experts advise on reaching your goals — and managing the consequences
Business needs to be more sustainable — faster.
“The speed and scale of what we need to do — I don’t think [current action] is sufficient,” Dominic Barton, global managing partner, McKinsey, told Harvard Business Review recently.
Many say that incremental change isn’t sufficient to reach social and environmental targets like the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Instead, radical innovation is needed.
Innovating for sustainability involves making intentional changes to an organization’s products, processes, or business model that produce environmental and/ or social benefits as well as economic value 
Incremental change is about finding increased efficiencies and making small social or environmental improvements: for example, manufacturing a bicycle with less energy or fewer materials. Radical innovations are more novel ideas that substantially improve sustainability performance. An example might be providing a bicycle sharing service. Even more radical: building a product to positively affect broader systems. Might a bicycle help pollinate plants or spread biodiversity? 
Radical change is not common.
Eric Beynon, a Canadian sustainability entrepreneur, says that he regularly hears radical ideas. “There's no shortage of bold statements and individuals with money or with innovation who want to do big things,” he said.
Bringing those ideas to implementation is more difficult. “So often, we default to incremental action because there aren't the tools and processes and the framework in place to enable the bold action.”
NBS recently asked Beynon and Steve Kennedy how companies can achieve radical sustainability innovations. Beynon approaches radical innovation as a practitioner; Kennedy, as a researcher.
Beynon helped lead the global Carbon XPRIZE competition, which will award $20 million to innovators who can turn carbon from a waste to an asset. The prize funds will go to the teams that are best able to convert CO2 emissions to useful products, such as plastics and carbon fiber. It’s a five-year effort supported by nine energy companies. Beynon now leads 9 Billion Lives (9BL), a platform to scale innovations that enable the world’s growing population to live well.
Kennedy, based in Rotterdam, is a researcher on climate change and sustainability-oriented innovation at Rotterdam School of Management’s Centre of Corporate Eco-Transformation.
Beynon and Kennedy agree on what’s required, offering three tips for radical innovation.
1. Rally people around a clear vision
Bold missions and CEO vision are key to change. “They give certainty within a firm of the direction, and signal to others the firm’s intention,” Kennedy says.
An appealing mission draws talent and energy. Kennedy worked with start-up Fairphone, which builds smart phones with transparent supply chains and other sustainable elements. “Fairphone’s bold mission meant that many different actors would offer them knowledge and resources for free,” Kennedy explained. “Those people wanted nothing in return, other than to see the mission be successful.”
Beynon similarly sees a “big narrative,” focused on impact, as a way to mobilize people and guide decision making. The Carbon XPRIZE aims to “turn CO2 from asset to waste.” 9BL seeks to “enable 9 billion people to live a full life on the planet earth.” “These goals set an objective for every individual or company to strive toward,” said Beynon.
Beynon sees the specificity as more compelling than traditional sustainability yardsticks. “For me, [these goals are] much clearer than striving towards being a triple bottom line company, or toward corporate social responsibility.”
Leaders who set a clear direction include Feike Siebesma at DSM, and Paul Polman at Unilever. “These guys have bold visions of a fossil-free company, fossil-free world,” Kennedy said.
2. Use open innovation to draw on diverse expertise
Open innovation advances technologies by combining ideas from inside and outside a company. The Carbon XPRIZE took this approach, seeking insights from new fields.
Chemical engineers had been studying CO2 for decades, Beynon said, because that's who the energy industry employed.” The open call issued by the Carbon XPRIZE attracted researchers in nanotech, biotechnology, and other areas. These are “different disciplines who never really thought of themselves as distinct climate scientists, or even had a path to deploy their ideas,” said Beynon. “But now, they have an outlet.”
Open innovation recognizes there is no monopoly on good ideas. “A radical idea can come from any individual at any time,” explains Kennedy. “By using open innovation you are essentially sourcing ideas from the crowd, increasing the chances that you may strike upon a good one.”
The approach can be disorienting. The Carbon XPRIZE sponsors are multi-national energy companies accustomed to competing. Pursuing a path of open innovation required a new kind of collaboration, Beynon explained. “For them to do something where they weren’t in charge of the R&D and where they were not experts was a completely different thought process that was very difficult for some individuals to get their heads around.”
Kennedy suggests that a broad framing for innovation challenges can be particularly useful. “It is now pretty common to mobilize people around a specific challenge, such as a Sustainable Development Goal, rather than focusing on a discipline or industry,” he said. This approach can attract the interdisciplinary expertise needed to tackle complex problems.
A different framing can even be useful within a company. For example, a paint company might want to help indoor air quality, e.g. with products that extract fine dust. This new goal can engage different employees and increase motivation.
3. Develop partnerships to bring an idea to implementation
Big challenges require big — and diverse — teams. “It’s highly unlikely that any firm has all the competencies and knowledge required at its disposal in the development of a new product,” says Kennedy. A new product may require additional expertise, or structures to bring it to scale.
The Carbon XPRIZE tried to build the broader system needed to catalyze an industry. For example, it’s usually difficult to test proposed carbon capture and conversion technologies. “If you have a great idea [for capturing emissions], you can't call up your local power provider and ask to drill a hole in their flue stack,” Beynon said. Carbon XPRIZE supporters mobilized over $80 million USD, in part to build facilities for teams to test their ideas.
The goal, Beynon explained, is to “create a hub for these technologies and others who are sparked by the competition, but maybe aren't even competing in it, to actually come and advance their technologies.”
A radical new product may even require competitors, says Kennedy, so that customers have secure supply. When materials company DSM developed a new chemical with a lower carbon footprint, it welcomed competitors' similar efforts — recognizing that they reinforced customer acceptance. “It’s about resilience of supply,” Kennedy explained. “What if the factory has a problem and cannot deliver the acid? What if the customer needs more acid beyond what the one factory can produce? You can also say it’s about credibility and legitimacy. If many firms are converging on the same new solution, you can be pretty sure as a firm that it will be the future of the industry.”
For true sustainability, think about the system
It’s easy to get excited about radical change. But changes can have unexpected — and problematic — consequences. Think about how digitization has affected employment or politics. “Sometimes I worry that we are always jumping to the next great thing that has its own side effects,” said Beynon.
The right goal helps guide effective change. “We have to be absolutely clear on the ultimate objective,” said Beynon. “For work on the Carbon XPRIZE it was ‘available and affordable energy for all that doesn’t harm the environment/climate.’ Staying true to this impact objective will enable the markets and companies to find the solutions that fit best.”
Keep those broader dynamics in mind throughout the innovation process. “First try to get a handle on why the system behaves like it does,” said Kennedy. "Then, once you have a design of your innovation, reflect again on how you think it would influence the system behavior. This may lead to large pivots in the business model. Continue to monitor the impact of your product or service over time, adapting as impacts become clearer.”
Once you have a sense of the system, don't be afraid to act. Climate change and other sustainability challenges make radical change a necessity, say Kennedy and Beynon. Jump in, and learn as you go. ”With grand challenges and wicked problems, it’s often just about getting started with a solution,” said Kennedy. “As you start to build that, you start to actually understand the problem better.”
 Network for Business Sustainability. 2012. Innovating for sustainability: A guide for executives. London, Canada: Network for Business Sustainability. p. 4
 Kennedy provided a more detailed description of the difference between incremental and radical change: “Incremental change is about finding increased efficiencies and making small improvements to social and/or environmental impact. A bicycle manufacturer, for instance, may consider how to produce its product using less energy or fewer materials.
“Radical innovations are frame-bending realized ideas that have a high degree of novelty and lead to substantial improvements to sustainability performance. A bicycle retailer may seek to fundamentally reconsider what value its customer really wants and if this can be delivered more sustainably. It may consider that customers want access to bicycles rather than owning one, leading to a service based business model. This switch promotes using durable, long-lasting products and gives the firm control of the materials, opening new options of reuse, refurbishment and remanufacturing.
“Further still, the bicycle manufacturer or retailer may consider how the product interacts within its wider systems, and if it may make a greater positive impact to how those systems function. For instance, can you design a bicycle that helps to pollinate plants or spread biodiversity?”