How citizens, companies and entrepreneurs are transforming Europe towards sustainability

Sonia Ruiz (@soniaruizmas), sustainability consultant and researcher at ESADE Institute of Social Innovation. Co- author of the book “Innovating in search of Sustainability: Citizens, Companies and Entrepreneurs”

According to the latest predictions, by 2030 the planet will be short of the resources required to power an economy that will have two billion more consumers. Poverty, food insecurity, climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity and environmental degradation are some of the significant global challenges facing the world today. How are companies and entrepreneurs innovating to face those challenges, while building a more sustainable Europe has been key question behind the European research project EU InnovatE and the main motivation behind the publication of this new ESADE study.

“Innovating in search of Sustainability: Citizens, Companies and Entrepreneurs”, presents eight sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship cases in Southern Europe. They represent different management structures and sizes: multinationals, small and medium-sized companies, startups and cooperatives. Their sustainability innovations range from new product development (e.g. sustainable modular houses or zero-waste food products) to hybrid distribution chains to foster social inclusion and fight youth unemployment, public–private partnerships in sustainable municipal transportation, community-based innovation models, and citizen cooperatives for alternative energy production and distribution.

An increasing role of citizens as end users, consumers, entrepreneurs or activists, in co-creating sustainability innovations

One of the main conclusions of the study is the fact that, either as participants in companies’ open innovation processes, initiating and implementing their own business ideas, or forming cooperatives with like- minded individuals, citizen-led innovation towards sustainability is gradually becoming an emerging reality in Europe. In the cases presented, we can find evidence on how citizens play a very important role in company´ open sustainability innovation processes. Consumer insights and concerns about food waste were the driver behind the launch of a new product line adopting circular economy principles: Cuina Veritas by the Spanish organic supermarket chain Veritas. In other cases, citizens with an entrepreneurial approach, started developing their own business solutions to environmental or social challenges –like the case of Social Car, -creating a car sharing platform between citizens- or Noem– devising a prefabricated construction system based on locally sourced natural materials which also minimizes and controls CO2 emissions at every step of the process-.

In some cases, entrepreneurs or citizens become either members of a broader community or create cooperative schemes, fostering alternative models of production and consumption (like for instance, Som Energia – a non profit cooperative focused on producing and marketing energy of renewable origin- or Food Assembly -connecting farmers and consumers directly to encourage local food distribution and consumption-. In both cases, technology and on-line community platforms play a very important role to escalate and even replicate the business model.

Companies as agents of change: the importance of stakeholder engagement and partnerships

Can traditional companies be considered sustainability change agents? Are their sustainable innovations really disruptive? While the most common approach in large companies is to allow time and resources for new approaches to sustainability innovation, the fact is that when companies open up those processes to their stakeholders, the outcomes might eventually create a shift to their business model. In Unilever “Soy Frigo” case, the top management determination and vision to fight youth unemployment in Spain, led to a bottom of the pyramid approach in their ice-cream division distribution. This hybrid distribution model (with the participation of young students or young people at risk of social exclusion) has already been replicated in other European countries with great success.

Public- private partnerships can also assist in shaping new business propositions and a quicker adoption of sustainable lifestyles. This is the case of Vélib´, a project developed by the outdoor communications company JCDecaux together with the Municipality of Paris. This partnership aimed at providing a zero-carbon cycle-share system for the city and halving the use of private vehicles by 2020. In this case, an active stakeholder engagement approach with third parties has fuelled the creation of a sharing mentality and sense of community in the city of Paris, encouraging users to switch to other sustainable products or services and, thus, enhancing sustainable lifestyles in mobility and broader consumption habits.

Last, sustainability innovation is not only a domain reserved to big companies. Apart from the previous mentioned medium sized company, Veritas, it is worthy to note the case of Kard Architects, a small family-owned firm in Greece, which also has witnessed the benefits of integrating users in their projects. In this case, the construction process of an experiential and sustainable primary school in the North of the country co-creating with users and stakeholders, led to the creation of a school considered prototype in Greece.

In all the above cases, we could identify several key factors leading to successful sustainability innovations. Amongst the most important ones are: citizen willingness to adopt a more proactive role (“prosumer”), rather than merely being passive recipient of products and services; the vision and commitment towards sustainability of companies´ top management, allowing intrapreneurship and trial an error approaches in their working environments; and the importance of partnerships, collaboration and effective stakeholder engagement, which are viewed more as a trigger for innovation and business model questioning than only to obtain license to operate.

The recent ESADE publication “Innovating in search of Sustainability: Citizens, Companies and Entrepreneurs, provides more detailed analysis and the main findings of the study, presenting pioneering practices in corporate sustainability innovation involving citizen participation as well as cutting-edge sustainability ventures in Southern Europe.


You can acess and download the publication «Innovating in search of sustainability: citizens, companies and entrepreneurs.» for free by clicking the following link


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