For all their innovation prowess, the ancient Egyptians never understood how to draw in perspective. While hieroglyphs were an amazing invention, they’re a two-dimensional testament to how humans can go on for thousands of years thinking in very limited ways. It wasn’t until the 14th century that an Italian architect figured out how to get perfect perspective by drawing on a mirror. The result was nothing less than a revolution that we all take for granted today.
While the tides are shifting, most define sustainability as “doing more with less” and “paying it forward for a better world.” It’s seen as heartfelt but indirect to business success. A problem to be solved at a cost. This is that same flat, two-dimensional thinking.
Increasingly, leading innovators are seeing a new perspective that’s reframing what sustainability can be. It’s not just a question of ethics or respect for the environment or putting people at the center. It’s about thinking of sustainability not as a cost but as a catalyst.
Imagine a robot powered by oil pollution. Or a six-pack ring made of spent hops and barley that dissolves in the ocean to become fish food. Or technology that converts methane from hog farms into enough power for a small town. Though far from fully realized, these innovations all exist. What do they all have in common?
All these ideas center around turning the problem into the opportunity. Using the sustainability challenge itself as the source of innovation. Floating oil, spent beer grains and pig poop become part of the solution.
At Dell, this thinking has been going strong. A few years ago, the company took the enormous sustainability challenge of millions of tons of plastic in our oceans and looked at it differently. Now Dell is creating the world’s first commercial-scale plastics supply chain from ocean waste. Dell believes it can recycle this plastic and deliver the same quality and performance at a lower price. More than being sustainable, Dell’s approach is seeking to create a new commercial marketplace.
For marketers, some of 2017’s most award-winning work played in this sustainability-as-innovation space:
- Heineken created art out of air pollution.
- A real estate developer in Bangkok made small, sometimes oddly shaped soccer fields for kids out of unused spaces.
- In Colombia, a bank found a way to use old payphones as savings accounts for the unbanked.
It takes a shift in thinking from how innovation can power sustainability to how sustainability can power innovation. In A Beautiful Constraint, authors Adam Morgan and Mark Barden call for adopting a “transformer mindset.” That shift in mindset means you’ll view sustainability as an opportunity rather than an obligation. As a competitive advantage instead of an expense item.
Get started by embracing the sustainability problems that are relevant to the company, brand or audience. Deconstruct everything—the ecosystem, the brand, the technology, the audience needs. What assets might arise from those liabilities? What assumptions can be challenged? What are the richest playgrounds for new ideas?
As with any innovation tool, a brilliant solution may not always reveal itself, but it’s worth the effort. In this time of unlimited opportunities and constant change, there are fewer and fewer limits to what brands can do. The brands of tomorrow will take sustainability into this new dimension and prosper.