Rapid innovation for success and sustainability


9 minute read
Jo Reid

Jo Reid

Chief Executive Officer

Digital Insights

The Geo-Cosmos installation at Miraikan, Tokyo

The pace of development of digital technologies has accelerated dramatically over the past few decades, with the coronavirus pandemic alone speeding up digital transformation and the adoption of digital technologies by several years.

At the start of the millennium, it was iPods, USB-plug-in webcams and MySpace that dominated our digital lives. Now, we live in a world where Spotify has almost half a billion users, Zoom has 300 million daily meeting participants, and TikTok’s short-form video offering is on track to attract 1 billion users worldwide by 2025.

I mention these platforms in particular as they are all examples of highly successful rapid innovation. 

Spotify’s success and ability to fend off competition from other streaming services has been widely attributed to its aptitude for “complex continuous innovation” –  “where individuals in the firm use recombination to repeatedly reconfigure elements of their existing knowledge, fusing this together to deliver new product solutions,” explains the Harvard Business Review.

Zoom fast-tracked innovation in security to rapidly address security concerns that had arisen when Zoom started to gain popularity at the start of the pandemic. This not only made it a very difficult platform to crack and hack, it also ensured Zoom remained a dominant force in an intensely competitive video conferencing market.

TikTok is interesting because it took what Twitter was doing with tweets and applied it to a video format. While social media has been well-established for some time and seen the rise and fall of many product and platform innovations, TikTok still managed to break through by harnessing the technology that was out there but packaging it in an entirely new way.

Hand holding phone with TikTok app, laptop in background

It is an unfortunate consequence of digital innovation that much of it comes at the cost of the environment due to the systems and infrastructure that these technologies rely on. On the flipside, they also have an increasingly important role to play in addressing many of our most pressing global challenges.

As climate change rises up the agenda and digital technologies open up businesses to new challenges and opportunities, we must ask ourselves how we can achieve positive disruption and innovate without harming the business or real-world ecosystems. Let’s see.

Achieving Sustainable Development Goals

We see many examples of businesses taking Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s famous approach to innovation: “move fast and break things”, which was the company’s first motto. While this approach no doubt reaps rewards for some (including Facebook), businesses should be looking to align their innovation strategies with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which requires a different approach to innovation; one that is done thoughtfully, responsibly and inclusively.

An urgent call for action by all countries in a global partnership, the 17 goals and 169 targets seek to address myriad global challenges, including climate change, inequality and poverty. Innovation and technological progress has been cited as being “key” to finding lasting solutions to both economic and environmental challenges, such as increased resource and energy efficiency.

When thinking about how businesses can improve energy efficiency, one of the more obvious, well-trodden arguments is that video conferencing platforms, which have seen strong growth due to the rise in remote working amid Covid-19, allow many people to reduce their travel and time spent travelling – and therefore their carbon footprint. According to an online calculator, two people spending an hour on Zoom generates the same amount of CO2 as driving 0.01 miles (0.0037kg of CO2).

On the flipside, other innovations like blockchain and the Metaverse significantly increase resource consumption rather than diminish it. Blockchain technology Ethereum alone uses more energy than the Netherlands and has a larger carbon footprint than Singapore.

It will become harder to reach net zero if we keep increasing the energy we need to save from major processing hubs, and so businesses must strive to balance the benefits of technological innovations with the wider impact on the planet.

Graphs on a computer screen

Rapid disruption

There are many instances where digital capabilities have meant that innovation programmes have been made possible or accelerated, addressing and developing new technologies to help with the UN’s SDGs, such as new energy sources.

We are seeing a wider industry awareness of shared sustainability goals driving more companies to try and tackle many fronts and try different options quickly. It is this rapid approach to innovation that is rewriting the rules of, and entry to, long-established business environments. Take space exploration, for example, where barriers are breaking down through entrepreneurial spirit and piggybacking off other innovations.

This has, in turn, given rise to a new industrial revolution that is less based on bricks and old structures and needs, and more on ever-shifting contexts and environments. Businesses can grow to a global scale faster than ever before.

We can track this by looking at how long the success curve and legacy tail are. The gradient of the curve may increase as the ability to innovate and disrupt speeds up; but does this rapidity and fast change permit opportunity for sustainability and a legacy that builds and grows? 

It remains to be seen whether we’ll also see equal change in what “success” means and whether the traditional definitions of value persist as the business development journeys change. Can we reach an egalitarian approach? Will we attribute value to activities that work towards sustainability – for instance, supporting a circular economy? Will we collectively trial different ideas that look beyond one company and into whole ecosystems working better together?

We discussed why platforms are a core part of business ecosystems and central to the ways we interact with our environments at Bristol Technology Festival.

Innovation drivers

In our experience at Calvium, drivers of innovation range from having a strong sense of insight to knowledge of a problem to intuition that there is a better path to take. This often stems from a problem that needs to be addressed, such as climate change, which then drives a timeline.

While the most common drivers are a clear need and a market, “change” is also a core driver. This may come from innovators who want to effect change through disrupting traditional markets or rapidly responding to changes when they happen. Brexit, for example, forced an abundance of new paperwork which everyone needed help with, therefore opening up an opportunity for new businesses.

Another approach might be to see an opportunity and develop a market where one doesn’t yet exist, or gathering insight and getting the right data.

In all of these instances, speed to market is key otherwise someone else will likely get there first and take market share. However, while it is critical to spot the moment and act on impulse, this must be done with grounded information to ensure you aren’t just moving fast and breaking things.

Jeff Bezos’ philosophy to rapid innovation is around making “high-quality” decisions faster. In his 2016 letter to shareholders, Bezos said: “To keep energy and dynamism, you have to somehow make high-quality, high-velocity decisions…Speed matters in business – plus a high-velocity decision making environment is more fun too.”

Iterative design with frequent trials, tests and improvements is very much in line with Calvium’s ethos too.

Practical steps

Whatever your preferred method, the first task is to identify the path, the first step on the path and then to verify the needs on that path.

Of course, funding is going to be crucial, which means taking the time to work on the idea enough to find funding that will allow you to take these first steps. This can be a positive constraint to allow you to really explore and define what the first step is – what the funding is for – which lays the groundwork for taking the following steps. Seed funding, crowdfunding and grants are common sources of initial support that will allow you to develop the first gem of an idea and validate the need and cost.

While success is never guaranteed when it comes to innovation, the “fail fast” mantra recommends doing the smallest activity you can do to genuinely validate the idea. Take time to explore each stage and take small steps to minimise the risk, loss and damage at any point. Innovation cannot happen without taking risks, but by not taking on too big an investment you can help to ensure continuous learning regardless of the outcome.

Remember the power of peer-to-peer learning. There is nothing like chatting to someone who has done something similar so make sure you reach out to experts and seek out initiatives that support networking and bring business innovators together.

Crucially, do not underestimate the ethical consequences of your project. Innovation and ethical practice go hand in hand, as we discussed in a recent article, and we would strongly recommend checking actions at each step against guiding sustainability principles. We all have a responsibility to consider the potential consequences of our products and services on people, communities and the planet.

One final key element is to find the right team, skills and resources. Make the time to identify the critical skills that aren’t in your existing team and find ways to source them. We can’t all be good at everything, but together we can achieve a whole lot more.

Final thoughts

As the world recovers from Covid-19 and climate change becomes a matter of urgency, the ability to innovate rapidly feels even more critical.

Fast-track innovation will only help to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals if it is done thoughtfully and with people and the planet as core drivers. Failing to do so risks breaking things along the way and doing significantly more harm than good, to both businesses and the planet.

Contact Calvium if you are interested in working together to develop sustainable, rapid innovations that will help you achieve your business goals.

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