EU Innovate: How Citizens, Companies and Entrepreneurs are shaping a more Sustainable Europe

Sonia Ruiz, (@soniaruizmas) Researcher and Collaborator, Institute of Social Innovation, Founder at NOIMA Meaningful Communications

Those were two of the key questions behind the European funded research project EU InnovatE: Sustainable Lifestyles 2.0: End User Integration, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which has gathered researchers, sociologists economists and sustainability experts from fourteen leading academic institutions and think tanks from all over Europe. The main goals of the project have been, on the one side: to make end users, companies and policy-makers aware of their active roles in sustainability innovation and entrepreneurship (by creating institutions, organizations and opportunities) within a European context; and, on the other: to demonstrate the scale of opportunity for entrepreneurs to create wealth, jobs and well-being within the context of Europe’s transition to sustainable lifestyles and green economy.

EU InnovatE is at its final phase now. For more than two and half years, the project has addressed several areas: from understanding what drives a sustainable or non sustainable society, to exploring pathways to future scenarios for a greener Europe; from gathering and analyzing pioneering practices in corporate sustainability innovation involving citizen participation, to identifying entrepreneurs leading edge sustainability ventures all over Europe.

Amongst other outcomes and deliverables, the research team has compiled a detailed inventory of more than 300 sustainability innovation and sustainable entrepreneurship initiatives in four key sectors (mobility, food, housing and energy) and four geographical areas (Northern, Southern, Central and Eastern Europe). From the initial inventory, 38 in- depth case analysis from 12 countries were analysed including multinationals, small-medium sized companies, start-ups or entrepreneurship initiatives as well as co-operatives. The sustainable innovations developed range from new product development (electric cars – BMW-; zero waste new food line products –Veritas-), hybrid distribution chains (to foster social inclusion and fight youth unemployment – Unilever Spain-); to private- public partnerships that create a new city transportation model (Vélib in Paris); community-based innovation models (MAW); and citizen cooperatives for alternative energy or food production (Som Energia, Retenergie, Micibo, Food Assembly).

In all the cases analysed, the involvement of the citizen, either as part of the open sustainability innovation process of the firm, or as entrepreneur or member of a broader community or cooperative creating new sustainable business models, has proved decisive to reach the final outcome. Other interesting findings, gathered after a systemic comparison of the cases developed, can be summarised as follows:

1. Sustainability as driver of innovation. Moving away from the concept that traditionally sees sustainability as risk compliance, sustainability is now being perceived as a clear driver for innovative products and services, enhancing competitive advantage and providing a new edge to the way innovation processes are designed internally. Relying on the consumer insights in the ideation and product development innovation phases, rather than uniquely in the commercialization and post-launch phase often provide very important input in order to create a more breakthrough sustainable product or service.

2. Increasing importance of the role of active stakeholders. The vital role stakeholders was key in most of the cases analysed. They were often acting as facilitators or enablers of citizens, end-users or consumers insights, either as stimulators, initiators, broker- mediators, concept refiners, legitimators, educator, context enabler and impact extender). Secondary stakeholders can also play a highly collaborative rather than a conflictive role[1]

3. Enablers and Challenges. Top management support, visionary leadership, a strong organizational culture of trial and error, internal collaboration and strong entrepreneurial attitudes were identified as key facilitators of sustainable innovations or enterprises. On the contrary, skeptical and fearful attitudes of employees, complexity of handling additional relations and lack of collaboration expertise were some of the shared identified challenges.

4. Communities and Cooperatives as more systemic sustainability game- changers. Sustainable entrepreneurs and Community- based entrepreneurship models (cooperatives) often offer more radical innovations and disruptive sustainable business models leading to quicker adoption of sustainable lifestyles across the four domains studied (energy- mobility- housing and food).

The paradigm is shifting. The COP21 agreement and the approval of the Sustainable Development goals show that there is an increasing global interest on sustainability as development driver. Companies, entrepreneurs and citizens can work together in maximizing sustainable development opportunities while leveraging on innovation. Policy makers will need to come to terms on how to promote an enabling environment to entrepreneurs, start-ups and big corporations for collaborative sustainable innovation towards a greener, more inclusive and sustainable Europe. Hopefully, EU InnovatE will provide the basis for that.

[1] As identified in Goodman, J., Korsunova, A., & Halme, M. (2016) Our Collaborative Future: Activities and Roles of Stakeholders in Sustainability-Oriented Innovation. Academy of Management 2016 Annual Meeting Proceedings


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