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To bring sustainable innovation to the market a company must embrace a different approach to leadership. The good idea isn’t enough, and we need to focus on this to prepare coming innovators for their journey, according to the speakers at our latest Science Talk.

Innovation takes much more than a good idea. To get the idea to market – which sometimes means creating the market – a lot of different actions must be taken. Leadership in innovation companies, therefore, looks quite different than leadership in more established companies. This has a huge implication for startups and firms working with sustainability because they often try to bring innovation and radical new ideas to the market.

This was the theme of our fourth Science Talk of the year: “Sustainable Transformation and Innovation Leadership in the Built Environment”, held by Mikkel Andreas Thomassen, managing partner at Smith Innovation, and Pelle Munch-Petersen, assistant professor at the Royal Danish Academy. They shared their research and findings from their post-doc project on how to navigate in the building industry and lead sustainable innovation, a project funded by Realdania and Grundejernes Inversteringsfond.

What is Sustainability?

At the Science Talk, Pelle Munch-Petersen started by defining sustainable innovation and relating this to some of the companies they have been working within their post-doc project.  Sustainable innovation is purpose-driven innovation, where the purpose is environmental sustainability. But how do we define environmental sustainability?

In this project, Mikkel Andreas Thomassen and Pelle Munch-Petersen have focused on three different aspects of environmental sustainability in the building industry, naming them pallet, moves, and wellbeing:

Pallet, the first aspect, concerns materials and how we can move from environmentally damaging building blocks to ones made from biobased materials that don’t have the same negative impact on our environment and climate. The second aspect, moves, relates to how we use materials and technology, and how we design with the recourses we have. An example of sustainability within this aspect is designed for disassembly and upcycling.

Wellbeing, the last aspect of the sustainability definition, focuses on how we can use design to make life in buildings better. Pelle Munch-Petersen pointed out that this is often a question of subtracting instead of adding – a trend that fits with all aspects of sustainable innovation and innovation in general. Currently, a lot of buildings are very technology-heavy, which takes up space and alienates the inhabitants of buildings from the functions of the technology e.g., ventilation. By making solutions that bypass a massive use of technology we might create buildings with better indoor climates and more space for the people inhabiting them.

The companies that they used for their research included BLOXHUB member Peikko Denmark and BLOXHUB Tech Match company EcoCocon. The companies they looked at embraced different aspects of the sustainability definition in their product and approaches.

The Many Roles of Innovation Leadership

After definitions were in place, Mikkel Andreas Thomassen took over to elaborate on the business and leadership journeys of some of these companies, and what the findings from their research mean for companies trying to push novel ideas in the built environment.

Sustainable innovation starts with a simple, radical, and sustainable idea within the capability of the inventor. But being new, the idea might not fit into the existing market or regulations in its original form. To adapt, it might become a hybrid solution, or the inventor will have to engage the value chain up- and/or downstream to ensure the materials or technology needed for the solution. Perhaps another market position is necessary to cope with competition and so the firm grows to extend its capabilities.

But even so, the breakthrough of the idea is very dependent on external factors, such as customer expectations and demand, regulations and norms, investor interest, and so on. To manage innovation is therefore to manage a whole network of activities, first in niches but later in the wider market. To deal with these different activities, the role of the inventor is not enough. Mikkel Andreas Thomassen and Pelle Munch-Petersen have in their research defined seven different roles necessary for innovation leadership to highlight that the inventor is a critical role, but the main ability is not to have the first technical idea but to be able to mobilize this wider field of roles.

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7 roles in making sustainability happen:

The Inventor: The one that has the original idea and drives the substance of the innovation itself (commonly not as interested in all the external tasks that make the innovation possible)

The Problem Shooter: The right-hand person that deals with all external tasks around the innovation: regulation, testing, approval, etc.

The Con Amore Expert: an external expert that shares the same ideals, is passionate about the project, and whose expertise and reputation are an important validation of the innovation.

The Gatekeeper: The one that provides access otherwise hard to achieve (often to potential customers)

The Key Client: The first one to give the innovation a change of implementation.

The Donor: The internal donor (often on the board of the company) or the external donor (fonds, grands, public or private) that paves the way for and validates the innovation. This can be in form of symbolic recognition or in form of financial support.

The Approving Authority: The actor that with its approval is important to get on the market (for instance, fire authority)

Emerging vs. Mature Markets

According to Mikkel Andreas Thomassen and Pelle Munch-Petersen, knowing this should change the expectations we have of leadership in emerging markets compared to more established markets.

In more established markets these different roles will be more compartmentalized and hierarchically ordered. Looking at companies in emerging markets, where these roles are more jumbled – one person might take on several roles, due to the financial situation of startup companies, and management has to be part of all activities – one might be tempted to assume that these companies are “doing it wrong”. But that isn’t the case.

Instead, we should be more aware of the dynamic capabilities displayed by early-stage companies, and the accompanying leadership style that is more targeted at forming rules than following them. Innovation companies in emerging markets have to shape the market, customers, expectations, investment, legislation, rules, and so on. Knowing this could help future innovators bring their sustainable solutions to the market by preparing them for the many roles of innovation leadership, and make donors more willing to invest, knowing that you can’t apply the logic of companies in secure markets to companies in the early stages.

You can watch the entire Science Talk on our Youtube.

All Science Talks of 2022 have the theme “Regenerate”, which you can read more about in this interview with one of the industrial researchers from our Circular Built Environment Network. Stay updated on upcoming talks in our event calendar.