Sustainable Innovation Requires Re-think on Project and Partnership Management

By June 19, 2013

The social and civic-minded economy, including concepts known as the ‘circular (or ‘restorative’) economy’, the ‘functional economy’ and the ‘collaborative economy’ are all ways of working which must be taken on board to the full in order to achieve the goal of sustainable innovation.

While 73% of the company heads polled for a recent report agreed that “sustainable innovation” – i.e. socially responsible innovation – is a strategic priority nowadays, they felt nevertheless that it was at the same time a highly destabilising concept.  The report was presented in Paris on 5 June by its authors from the Weave Air consultancy and the ESCP business school. The 300 heads of major firms surveyed for the Sustainable Innovation study said that innovation today means breaking down the traditional silos in a company, which in turn makes company organisation more complex. The study highlights four strategies and organisational approaches that will help to achieve the new organisation required.

Four steps to help drive Sustainable Innovation

Firstly, the report suggests that companies and organisations should simplify the challenge by focusing on a single initiative, a one-off project along the lines of the Ductal project, launched by French construction materials giant La Farge to develop an ultra-high-performance concrete (UHPC). This pioneering product has enabled Lafarge to position itself in a particular niche without disturbing its core business. Secondly, the firm should break that single initiative down into a number of innovation projects which link in to the central objective. Thirdly, it might be a good idea to create a new brand and/or a new division for the project, as the global insurer Generali did with its Agir pour notre avenir (Working for our future) label, which confers recognition on companies that perform best on risk prevention and social responsibility, by giving them preferential insurance rates. Fourth and last, the report points out that if it is to succeed, business innovation may require a company to strengthen its links with partner firms. This might mean acquiring the partner or setting up an investment fund along the lines of SNCF, the French public railway company, which has invested in several ecomobility funds designed to finance projects in the environmentally-friendly transport field.

Breaking down silos, strengthening external links

“Sustainable development practices are the business of all parts of the company, not just the specialists,” stresses Françoise Combelles, head of innovation and sustainable development at RATP, the Paris region transport system, who spoke at the presentation session. The Weave Air-ESCP report underlines that it is just as important to break through the rigid silos enclosing the various internal departments, from R&D to Marketing, through to top management, as it is to bring the external players – suppliers, partners and customers – on board. ESCP professor Olivier Delbard, one of the authors of the report, who also spoke at the presentation, explained that “this means that [a firm] needs to make full use of its collective intelligence, by linking up all the various players so as to make Sustainable Innovation happen.”

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