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Digital innovation the sustainable way

Updated: May 14

Ever wondered how on earth to innovate sustainably? How do we ensure the digital solutions we come up with deliver a positive impact for people and planet? Well luckily Melissa Fretwell, founder of White Camino happened upon just the expert to unpack all of this complex stuff. 

Ben Perkins, founder of Subvert Studio knows a thing or two about why innovation is vital for driving businesses forward. Ben has spent the majority of his career working with huge global brands and is now hell bent on taking this innovation savvy to smaller businesses trying to leave the world in a better place than we found it. Over to Ben to share some incredibly useful insights, grab any kind of pen and take note.

Innovation is how we adapt to changing pressures and how we create new opportunities from emerging technologies.

But all new ideas carry the potential for positive and negative change, often both at the same time.

And with increasing public awareness and industry regulation around social inclusion and environmental claims, businesses have a responsibility for the decisions they make and the ideas, products and services they introduce to the world.

Rage against the machine

In early 19th century England, the mechanised loom emerged against a backdrop of intense economic pressure, driven by the ongoing Napoleonic wars. It revolutionised textile manufacturing, able to do the work of 4 labourers and bringing great prosperity to the mills that embraced the new technology. But in the process it displaced many traditional labourers. Frustrated and with nowhere to go, they organised into an armed uprising (later known as the Luddites - yes, that’s where it comes from!) that spread across Yorkshire, smashing the looms and lynching the mill owners.

The government cracked down hard, and the machines won out: the factories are still here, and the Luddites are (on the whole) not. And while ultimately the industrial revolution generated many more jobs than it displaced, it was not without great cost. Those caught up in the transition faced significant economic pain, and we’re still living with the pollution and inequality that industrialisation created.

In the modern world we have a unique advantage over those 19th century Yorkshire mill owners: we have access to a vast array of methodologies, data, tools and computing power to effectively model the consequences of our decisions. But we also have the lessons of the past that teach us about the impact of acting without thinking of the consequences.

Doing nothing is no longer an option. Just putting things out there is not enough. And getting the process wrong can open a brand up to negative criticism that can be difficult to shake. Just look at Brewdog.

What is Sustainable Innovation?

Design thinking gets us from problem to solution in a human-centric way. It is an innovation process, led by observation and empathy, and refined by user testing and insights, designed to create products and services that will add value to people’s lives.

In the context of design thinking, we often talk about ‘doing the right things’ (understanding the human drivers behind a problem) and ‘doing things right’ (delivering solutions that people will want to use).

It’s a great mantra, but sustainable innovation challenges us to go a step further. It’s not just about doing right by the user (and by extension the business), but by society and the planet as well.

It means we must consider two further aspects across the process:

  • How do we minimise the negative impacts of the process by which we generate our ideas (discover & define)

  • How do we ensure the outcomes of that process, the things we make and ship, deliver a positive impact on the world (develop & deliver)

First - be clear on values and goals

Up front, it’s important to be clear on the values that are important to your brand, and how the sustainability goals your business (or the project) are working towards, align.

Why? Assessing options, ideas and decisions becomes much easier when we can evaluate against clear goals and criteria. Without these, we quickly fall prey to subjectivity and bias.

Many businesses choose to align their innovation goals, and assessment criteria, to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. These are a set of high level action areas that can be useful to orient thinking when conducting impact analysis.

However, your organisation may have other goals that are more relevant, or more granular. At Subvert Studio for example, we have made a commitment to not support the fossil fuel industry, and so decision making around any ideas we generate, tools and processes we apply, or projects we might choose to take on, includes an assessment of whether or not it moves us towards a world with less fossil fuels and less products based on them.

With that in mind, let's take a look at how this plays out across the innovation process:

Discover: How you generate ideas

As purposeful businesses, we have a responsibility to ensure the way in which we generate ideas is as positive as the solutions themselves. To do so, we can apply sustainable and inclusive design practices to the ideation process.

Of course it will be important to tailor the process to the needs and goals of your organisation, but here’s a few considerations as a starter for ten:

Ideate with purpose: Ensure impacts to people and planet are a consideration in the ideation process. For example when assessing solutions for business viability (one of the four product risks), apply tests for environmental or social impact, and alignment to mission and purpose.

Assess non-functional needs: When capturing and assessing stakeholder and user needs, interrogate inclusive, circular and accessibility considerations as well as more classic functional concerns. Ensure these considerations are also factored into test planning.

Use low carbon tools: Consider the impact of the tools and equipment used for ideation and planning, aiming to reduce, reuse and recycle where possible. Keep in mind low carbon doesn’t always mean paperless: a 1 hour video call has about the same footprint per person as 160 new sticky notes or 1km in an average petrol car.

Define: Assessment of ideas

At Subvert we’ve developed a sustainable impact canvas that encourages teams to think about the effects of making and using a potential solution, and provides an easy visual means to refine down ideas and identify candidates to progress or reject.

Ideas should be assessed against the sustainable goals identified at the outset of the project and across their lifecycle, with potential impacts plotted against the chart. 

More negative impacts suggest an idea that may not deliver all the good outcomes we want. They'll need to be avoided, minimised or mitigated.

More positive impacts suggest the idea warrants further development. They should be enabled and amplified as much as possible.

When conducting an assessment, we should also consider impacts that are progressively further removed from the point of origin. What is the impact of the production process, use of the product, or wider social effects? 

For example:

  1. Make: what is the environmental or social impact of the tools, technology, resources, stakeholders and governance involved in producing the idea? Can we ensure diverse viewpoints are involved in design? What opportunities are there to introduce or remove bias from the process? What are the emissions, by-products or waste that may be created during production?

  2. Use: What is the impact of the infrastructure required for ongoing operation? Are the effects of usage regenerative or consumptive? Does it encourage positive behaviours or negative ones? What are the potential impacts of misuse? What happens at end of life? What is the nature of data, content or media that may be produced or shared through the product?

  3. Indirect: Does the idea exert positive or negative influence on the wider industry and society as a whole? What are likely to be unintended side effects or consequences? What are the potential social or environmental influences from any behaviour change it encourages? Will it help generate new opportunities for underrepresented groups?

Design: Developing ideas into solutions

So you’ve identified a potentially strong candidate. How do we turn it into an effective solution? How do we build things right?

We can start by ensuring that our solutions are designed with sustainability, inclusivity and the user in mind by applying good design practices.

There are lots of considerations, and as always, they’ll depend on the nature of the endeavour, but here’s some more starting points:

Circular by design: To enable consumers and brands to engage effectively with the circular economy, digital solutions will need to focus on business models that can monetise product longevity or ownership alternatives, and customer experiences that reward reuse and reduction.

Inclusive practices: Inclusive experiences start with inclusive design practices. This means ensuring diverse perspectives are included as part of balanced teams, and that we remove bias from customer journeys by encouraging careful assessment of language, visuals, and hierarchies.

Create frictionless journeys: The easier it is for a user to find what they need, the less resource demands there will be from wrong turns and extra page loads. Lightweight experiences, with intuitive navigation based on familiar design principles, will help users find their way efficiently and reduce unnecessary steps. Where it's relevant, circularity should also be designed seamlessly into customer journeys from the outset, to help it become normalised and avoid feeling like an onerous after-thought.

Communicate with purpose: Stay focused on the content that will help users make effective decisions by aligning messaging to your mission and purpose. Reinforce important information consistently throughout the journey, tailored where relevant to specific audience needs.

Structure and present content in an accessible, and easy to understand format.

Traceability: With more and more focus on accountability, compliance and reporting, mechanisms to track and monitor the by-products and artifacts of production and operation will need to be designed in from the outset. Technical design choices made at this stage will affect the impact of ongoing operation - how will they be managed, reduced or mitigated?

Deliver: Testing, refinement and measurement

We can’t just put things out into the world and leave them - I mean we could, but very quickly they’d get overtaken by the next new thing. 

And so, good product management encourages us to continually learn and adapt based on how users are actually interacting with the experiences we build. It helps us keep up with changing needs and behaviours, and also stay relevant and meaningful as a brand.

By extension good sustainable innovation is continually learning from the impacts of the things we launch. Are they creating the positive changes we hoped, at the scale we want to see? Does the data align with our models and predictions?

While user insights and feedback are still crucial to continuous optimisation, we also need to look beyond just the user to truly measure positive impact.

This means establishing measurement frameworks across environmental and social impact too. How will you account for things like scope 1-3 emissions from the ongoing operation of the solution? How will you monitor and adapt to any broader network effects on society as a whole?

In summary

Sustainable innovation is as much about the process as it is the end product. The choices we make and tools we use during ideation and production all have a direct immediate impact on the world, as well as an influence on the impact the end product will deliver. 

In digital it can be easy to think those impacts are minimal or not worth mitigating. Of course the impact of running a design workshop or building a website isn’t quite the same as manufacturing and shipping a car. 

But the internet is all about scale, and small changes multiplied out through billions of daily interactions can have a huge impact.

As we’ve seen with innovations like Facebook, Spotify or Uber, what start out as small ideas have the potential to drastically change the world. Whether that’s for better or worse is up to us.

Find out more about digital innovation for purpose driven brands at Subvert Studio.

Thanks so much Ben for taking the time to inspire us. For everything that’s not digital innovation, drop us a line

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