Sustainability, Innovation & Governance to Solve Environmental & Social Problems

06 December by Paola Fiore


Guest Blog by Dr Paola Fiore | ETICAMBIENTE®  
Paola is Founder & CEO of ETICAMBIENTE® Sustainability Management & Communications Consulting
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How can we develop "social and environmental innovation" to solve the biggest challenges of our time? What is a "sustainable innovation system"?

Sustainability, Innovation and Governance could be easily considered as the three long-term fundamentals of any effective policy and business strategy in order to achieve competitiveness and sustainable growth, as well as promote economic prosperity and solve environmental and social problems.

Although we usually refer to innovation as “technological innovation” – the process through which new, or improved, technologies are developed and brought into widespread use – we need to remember that also “social and environmental innovation” is necessary to help society to adapt to the most pressing present and future social and environmental challenges, and in particular the climate crisis.

As discussions on technological innovations develop, an increased recognition for the need for new governance, tools and authorities arise. These new approaches move away from the current, narrow focus about risk assessment based on scientific evidence, to ones more adaptive, which include societal engagement and participation as central elements.

More actions should be taken by governments to mitigate the risk of technological innovations by clarifying what ‘responsible development’ means in relation to calls for a more preventive, precautionary approach.  As responsible development should support risk research alongside new technology product commercialisation.

Similarly, companies should maintain the burden of proof as technology producers, as the level of knowledge on technological risks may be many years away, while transferring potential risks to society; and, it is necessary to avoid the wider societal questions regarding the acceptability of such technological developments and the appropriateness, or need for them.

As some types of new applications and technologies have already raised key ethical questions, a clear sustainable innovation governance approach would need to be considered now, both by public authorities and private companies, and before such new applications and technologies can be featured as new products or services on the market.

Innovation could help solve many of the society’s ‘grand challenges’, but not on its own.

That’s why we need to guide innovation towards more socially and environmentally responsible longer-term objectives to ensure that the ‘right’ kind of innovation is encouraged, as well as the correct market conditions, which do not provide enough of an incentive to innovate to a high enough level, nor to particularly address society’s ‘grand challenges’ with priority or urgency.

At the EU Policy level, longer-term objectives could be 80% or 100% CO2 reduction, rather than 20% according to the European Policy Framework (20-20-20). This example helps us understand that different objectives could drive different types of creativity, leading to more break-through social or environmental technological innovation rather than just continuing with incremental ‘lower environmental impact’ improvements.

Governments would need to better shape the policy agenda and detail more clearly the objectives needed to guide social and environmental innovation in the next decade. 

Future research programs should identify medium and longer-term targets that better guide innovation than the historical ‘lower environmental impact’, and recognise the importance of social and environmental innovation in addressing the grand challenges that society faces, and there is no doubt that climate change is the biggest one for humanity now.

As the global population is increasingly reaching the limits of planetary resources, we must recognize that a broader societal and environmental context implies the recognition that innovation, for the sake of innovation alone, is no longer acceptable.

A clear sustainable innovation governance system would need to anticipate any potential future developments through its design, and avoid possible situations where regulators play catch-up with technologies and materials already in products on the market.

Such a sustainable innovation system would help governments and companies to identify more clearly how safer, socially and environmentally beneficial applications could be developed, and ensure better integration of these new technologies into society.

As uncertainty is embedded in new technologies, a proper sustainable oversight of innovation would need to incorporate the Precautionary Principle that includes an ethical responsibility towards maintaining the integrity of natural systems and resources.