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How to become a Magnet for Sustainable Innovations

How to become a Magnet for Sustainable Innovations

Sustainable innovations

Photo Credit: mattwalker69

“How do I find a good idea?”

Have you every looked things and wished they were different. Have you ever been frustrated by systems that are inefficient, ineffective or just simply poorly designed. Frustrated by these products, systems and sometimes even people we put up with it handling our discomfort by shrugging it off.

Sometimes we are lucky, and we can find alternatives.

When there aren’t solutions available, we carry on our day and decide to mask our discomfort.

What if I were to tell you that those times where you are feeling discomfort are actually all life changing opportunities. Each one a potential project that could bring you your dream. The dream of innovating solutions in response to the current environmental issues and energy crisis that dawn on our future.

Some of the best business ideas that entrepreneurs have are from solving problems that they faced themselves. They feel the discomfort of the problem and they created a solution that they wish to share with the world. This can be a great way to come up with business ideas. However, it’s not the only way. In this post you’ll learn how innovators look out for ideas and how to know if these ideas are worth pursuing.

Start with this worksheet…

Inefficiencies of Life

There are different ways to which we can solve the problems that we face. One way is is to ignore the problem, do not recognise it and do nothing. Another is to dwell on the problem, stuck in a self created prism of inaction. The last, is to innovate. To innovate you address the solution unbiasedly, tackle it with creative solutions and then effectively implement a new solution.

Sometimes these solutions can be quicker or easier than previous solutions and sometimes they replace solutions completely. Innovation can improve on existing ways of doing things and it can also disrupt the process all together.

When we look at the inefficiencies of life we find that innovation is not just a business term. It’s really a mindset that you must adopt to succeed in life. Life is full of inefficiencies: the misapplication of time, money and resources. Energy use comes to mind specifically, but beyond that we also have poorly managed waste systems, and distribution chains that consume tremendous amounts of fossil fuels to operate. The more we can improve the efficiency of these systems the more we can achieve positive outcomes in our lives and the lives of others.

Sustainable innovations look to improve upon the way we interact with the world and our environment. There are technologies that improve upon the use of resources and make for a more efficient world. More efficient in terms of energy use, resource use and time.

But the question remains…


How do we Learn to innovate?


Understand: Innovation is a practice. It is something you can cultivate.


To learn how to innovate let’s look the types of innovation.

  • Commercial Innovation: Finding better ways to promote existing products or services
  • Sustaining Innovation: Find better ways to incrementally improve existing products
  • Transformational Innovation: Breakthrough performance in existing categories
  • Disruptive Innovation: Breakthrough innovation in new markets. Creating a largely different value proposition in a new market

Regardless of which type of innovation you engage in, the process involves identifying an opportunity. An opportunity in new forms of promotion, an opportunity to improve on existing products, an opportunity to create a breakthrough in existing categories or an opportunity to disrupt with a breakthrough sustainable innovation in a new market.

Do these more formal terms help us come up with new ideas? Not in my experience.

To further a theoretical understanding you need to combine it with real life practice and experience. If innovation really is a practice, and something you can cultivate then how do you make it part of your daily life?

First off…to practice innovation

  • It doesn’t have to be costly
  • You don’t need to be a genius to cultivate it.
  • Also, innovating doesn’t require formal training (although research shows it does help).

How to Identify Opportunities

To start identifying opportunities for sustainable innovation I want you to try an exercise for the next 7 days. Keep a notebook and at the end of each day write down a list of the functional problems you and others faced when interacting with technology. Maybe you wish you had issues with your phone, software you use or maybe consumer products you used at home. Once you begin this you’ll start to notice how things could be improved and your mind will naturally begin to ponder solutions and generate novel ideas. Once you’ve got an idea you’ll need to access which first involves understanding the problem at a deeper level.

The best way to really understand a problem is to begin asking more questions. As a general rule asking why 3 times can often lead to really targeting the underlying problem you are trying to solve. To start to identify opportunities a great way is to observe when something in your daily life frustrates you or when you observe something that frustrates someone else. Maybe a consumer product you use has some annoying features or doesn’t serve its purpose. Once you’ve identified the frustration practicing asking why 3 times.

In the example of an annoying cupboard door handle that I have in my kitchen..

Why does this door handle catch my clothing when I’m in the kitchen?

Because its not flush with the draw.

Why does it frustrate me?

Because it stops me when I’m trying to move around the kitchen and sometimes I spill food everywhere because of it.

Why am I trying to move around the kitchen in the first place?

Because I want to prepare my food and this requires me move around while opening draws and cupboards.

See how this process helps to identify the true problem that needs solving. This process can lead to an innovative approach to solving problems. Searching for the underlying truths behind our own behaviour and how we interact with the world can lead to insights about how to make more effective products and services. Through this process and discovering my true motives as a consumer we can now address the problem of making better cupboard handles with a deeper understanding. Instead of fixing one little thing about the handles, we can design something with the intention of helping me make better use of my kitchen in order to prepare my food. This may lead to changes in the shape of the handles so that I can easily place my hand on it,  and so I can quickly pull/push the handle. Maybe even the color so that I can see the handle in my peripheral vision rather than needing to focus on it.

Design focused.

Innovation is not just about solving the technical aspect of problems, much of design involves studying human behaviour. The combination of considering consumer behaviour and determining the technical solutions often leads to innovative breakthroughs. Design is an essential component of sustainable innovation because it seeks to respond to the underlying behaviour of consumers rather than consumer requests.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” ― Henry Ford

The caveat here is that although having a detailed understanding of what the customer wants is essential, responding directly to their requests may not always be the best approach. To create breakthrough sustainble innovations we must seek to understand the customer but think out of the box when it come to providing new solutions. The greatest innovators were able to understand their consumers behaviour better than the consumer themselves.

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” – Steve Jobs

You must deeply understand your customer in order to build products that truly meet their needs. Understand their problems, their frustrations, their desires, their needs, and their aspirations. Once you do this you can generate solutions to problems that do not only meet the technical specifications of the problem, they also meet the needs of the consumer.

Is your idea worth pursuing?

The problem with new innovations is that in order for consumers to change to using new technologies they need to feel confident that it will provide a substantial benefit to overcome the perceived risk of trying something new. As humans, we are stubborn by nature and you can’t expect people to start using your new innovation if it is only 20% better than current solutions. For new technology to be adopted it needs to be many times more valuable to the consumer than the substitutes. Peter Theil says in his book Zero to One that proprietary technology must offer a 10x performance improvement over the closest substitute.  You can see this pattern amongst the most successful technology startups of our time. For example Amazon, even as a startup, could offer at least ten times more books than a traditional book store, just as it could be argued that PayPal made buying and selling on eBay ten times easier.

So how do you know whether your idea will be 10x better than the competition?

Although this is daunting, realise that it doesn’t start that way. Amazon didn’t start out with something that was 10x better than competition but they refined their startup overtime so to achieve this. Continuous improvement with a customer focus is the key to building an idea into a sustainable startup. There are some traditional methods to analyse the validity of a good idea. The first is what is called SWOT analysis. Once you begin to identify new ideas, technologies and business models you’ll want to ask your self these questions.

• What advantages do you have going into this industry?
• What is it that you do you do well?
• What relevant resources do you have access to?
• What do other people see as your strengths in this industry?

• What could you improve?
• What do you do badly?
• What should you avoid?

• Where are the good opportunities facing you?
• What are the interesting market trends you are aware of?

• What obstacles do you face?
• What is your competition doing?
• Are the required specifications for your job, products or services changing?
• Is changing technology threatening your position?
• Do you have bad debt or cash-flow problems?
• Could any of your weaknesses seriously threaten your business?

(For a more detailed swot analysis.)

Once you begin to put ideas through the funnel process of SWOT you’ll begin to gain a idea intuition based on market realities. There is nothing worse than creating technology that doesn’t have a potential market. However it is likely that your clean technology will have a growing market as the scientific realities of global warming, government policy changes and changing customer values are trends that are on the rise. It is important to note that the initial market size is not as important as the direction of the market. If you are only targeting a small group of people but they are growing quickly this is much more attractive than a large market with no or slow growth.

Make it a habit

As you identify opportunities for technological improvement jot them down in your note book, analyse them with a SWOT analysis then if it looks like a valid idea make a start. Their are several steps to start tackling problems with this new mindset. The first is being able to identify opportunities. This is the easiest, but still something that many people don’t do. The second is to analyse your idea through SWOT analysis, and this is what separates the idealists from the realists. Get into the details of the opportunity ask the hard questions upfront. Understand that although these answers will change over time, SWOT analysis is a great exercise to get an idea of what will be involved to make this happen early on. Third is what takes the most courage, starting the project. Don’t wait too long to get started. The purpose of the initial SWOT analysis is not to stop you from acting on your ideas, rather to funnel out ideas that are unlikely to become successful, so not to waste your precious time.

So the key is to start thinking in terms of technology innovation. Practice looking a ways to improve upon products that you use on a daily basis. When you combine this customer focused innovative thinking with the technical problem solving capabilities, you likely have as an engineer or scientist, you’ll be prepared to create solutions that will make for a successful startup.


1) Begin to identify opportunities for technological improvements: Do this in your daily life and jot these ideas within a notebook.

2) Ask ‘Why?’ 3 times to dig to the core of the issue: Look beyond the technical specifications understand the human behavioural implications of the problem.

3) Complete a SWOT analysis on your potential Ideas: this is to wean out the stinkers and to evaluate the potential winners.

4) Make a start: Don’t sit on potential ideas, once an idea looks attractive after a SWOT analysis you should make a start on the project.

5) Refine your value proposition: Realise that your technology must aim for a 10x improvement over the current substitutes but also understand that it won’t start out that way and the key is continuous improvement with a strong customer focus.

This is a method I believe we can all adopt to generate sustainable innovations that can be used to replace current solutions that are ineffective, inefficient and unsustainable. Practice looking for opportunities, understanding human behaviour, analysing and then making are start.

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