CTF blog: User innovations as a pathway to addressing current sustainability challenges2020-04-27
Innovation is a central element in addressing sustainability challenges, such as for example defined in the 2030 Agenda. But what are the sources of these sustainability-oriented innovations?
When looking at traditional innovation theory and related policies the answer is clear: Firms and research institutions are in charge. However, this perspective is increasingly challenged by research showing that also users (consumers, end-users, and citizens) engage in innovation activities and can make an important contribution to addressing sustainability challenges. This is especially so when the actual problem occurs on the user level. Consider, for example, the food waste problem in Sweden: more than 50 percent of the wasted food occurs in households. Here, consumers might actually have better ideas on how to reduce food waste because they experience the problem first-hand in their everyday life. In addition, firms typically innovate to increase their profits (e.g., sell more or reduce their production costs), while users primarily innovate to solve a practical problem they face. Thus, both the users’ knowledge and motivations make their innovations to a promising source for tackling sustainability challenges.
Based on the above arguments one would expect that user innovations are recognized in initiatives such as the 2030 Agenda. Unfortunately, however, they are not. In general, innovation policies, regulations, and funding structures do not support sustainability-oriented user innovation activities. As a result, users often end up innovating in isolation which means that their solutions never become available to the broader public. We call this phenomenon the non-diffusion of valuable user innovations.
In our research we explore possible ways to overcome the non-diffusion of sustainability-oriented user innovations. As a result, we define the following recommendations for firms, policy makers and researchers:
1) Recognize users (consumers, end-users, and citizens) as proactive and contributing actors rather than merely adopters of products and services. This does not mean that all users are innovative or contribute positively to sustainability-oriented innovations. But those who do should be identified and supported accordingly.
2) Counteract the non-diffusion of sustainability-oriented user innovations. This can include initiatives such as a) open education courses that increase users’ technical literacy and knowledge in innovation management; b) the provision of a supportive environment through e.g., living labs, opportunities to modify existing products or services, or more flexible funding schemes; and c) policies that account for non-monetary innovation drivers, such as altruism, reputation gains, or reduced development costs and learning.
3) Rethink how innovations are nowadays diffused. Within a well-connected society, should diffusion really be seen as a firm-driven process where products and services are distributed? Or shouldn’t diffusion be seen as an evolving process where different actors (including users) collaboratively develop and share an innovation?
Our comic illustrates our call for facilitating an environment that does not exclude but is inclusive of user innovators. A more open and collaborative innovation environment not only has the potential to increase social welfare in general but also the competitiveness of firms. One example that evidences precisely that is Hack the Crisis, a Hackathon initiated by the Swedish Government in response to the Corona crisis. The initiative attracted around 7000 participants with different backgrounds who over a weekend virtually collaborated to develop innovative solutions that help to save lives, communities, and businesses.
Trischler, J., Johnson, M., and Kristensson, P. (2020). A service ecosystem perspective on the diffusion of sustainability-oriented user innovations. Journal of Business Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2020.01.011