A New Cookbook: Crucial Ingredients for Sustainability Innovation

This article was first published by Forum for the Future. 

If we want to transition to a sustainable future, we need to rethink all aspects of our lifestyles. It’s no easy task: the complex and interconnected nature of the products and services we use every day to fulfill our food, energy, transportation and living needs must somehow be taken into consideration as companies and entrepreneurs innovate for sustainability. The good news is that stories of innovations which contribute to system-wide change already exist, and it is those stories that we would like to share through our newly produced Cookbook for Sustainability Innovation, put together by the Sustainability in Business Research Group at Aalto University, as part of the EU-InnovatE project with Forum for the Future.

The aim of the Cookbook is to showcase the variety of different methods and ingredients on which each of the innovations was based. It also highlights the wide range of different, and often unusual collaborators who took part in the co-creation process. One of these collaborator groups was citizens, who participated in all of the innovation processes in a variety of ways.

Some of the innovation processes were complex and large scale and involved multiple stakeholders early on to develop the final product or service. One such example is that of BMW’s development of the BMWi3, the group’s first mass-produced electric car. Early in the innovation process, the company collaborated extensively with citizens, public authorities, universities, energy providers, specialised innovation agencies and driving associations to develop this mobility solution. Citizen participation was especially valuable in idea contests and in extensively trialing the products.

In contrast, Frosta, the frozen food producer, involved citizens in an educational campaign. The company’s additive free frozen fish meals were developed based on feedback from research with customers. When they reached the commercialisation stage, they involved university students and nonprofit organisations to build an outreach programme to promote knowledge of food nutrition and sustainability to citizens. This educating role went further than informing about the product, aiming to create a wider awareness of health and food related issues.

Another variation is the choice to work with fewer citizen-stakeholders, but to invest more time in building strong relationships with them. This was the key to the new product innovations at Ecoveritas, a Spanish organic food retail company. By being open to citizens’ concerns about food wastage the company was able to find a sustainable solution through the development of new product recipes with a nonprofit foundation specialised in food technology. Close collaboration with another socially oriented organisation facilitated the employment of production staff from groups at high risk of exclusion from the work-force.

The internal environment of the company is also important when it comes to innovation for sustainability. Top management support, work culture and organisational involvement all featured in the cases. Rockwool, a Danish construction material manufacturer, provided their employees with time and resources to stimulate creative thinking for potential uses of stone wool. This trial and error culture made the company receptive to the idea of building temporary living shelters. In conversations with a nonprofit organisation, and by trialing the shelters with citizens at a local rock festival, the possibility for using the shelters to improve living conditions in refugee camps was born.

The recipes are not intended to be prescriptive, nor exhaustive. While there is not a single perfect co-creation recipe that fits all – our selection offers thought-provoking combinations of expansive or selective stakeholder networks, and shows the value of collaboration at different stages of innovation. Our hope is that the recipes in the Cookbook serve as a source of inspiration for any business, citizen, civil society organisation, entrepreneur, public authority, university or other stakeholder looking to innovate for more sustainable lifestyles.

For us as researchers and professors, the project has been a constant learning process, just as it was for the companies in the cases. Perhaps the most important insight for us was that we too have a role to play, both as observers and educators – and in our other roles as consumers, citizens, or members of civil society or educational organisations. Or to put it more simply, everyone has a role to play.

Jennifer Goodman is a Post-Doctoral Researcher with the Sustainability in Business Research Group at Aalto University School of Business.

If interested, go to SUB Page at Aalto where the Cookbook is published.

Future Tense: Four Sustainable Worlds in 2050

Sustainable future scenarios

Looking forward to 2050 through the lens of sustainable scenarios, we know that deep, radical, paradigm level changes may lie ahead. As part of the EU-InnovatE project we have been developing a series of scenarios set in 2050, which depict what sustainable lifestyles might look like and the different ways in which we might get there.


The scenarios (see picture) represent very different worlds and paradigms: Singular Super Champions, Governing the Commons, Local Loops, or Empathetic Communities. They highlight a number of key future shifts that could fundamentally reconfigure the culture and dominant paradigm of Europe: sustainability is a dynamic state of continual transition that’s best described by the social conditions in society:

  • Sustainability is a dynamic state of continual transition that’s best described by the social conditions in society
  • Sustainable lifestyles are interdependent, nested systems within a sustainable society, and are dynamic by extension
  • Achieving and sustaining dramatic resource efficiencies transforms capitalism
  • Change takes place at an uneven pace of change along scenario pathways to 2050

User-innovator roles in the transition towards a sustainable future 

A key insight from across the scenarios is to recognise that the role of users becomes increasingly more important, especially with regard to the transition to a more sustainable society. In order to take advantage of the full impact of these changes, the notion of how we understand ‘user’ will also need to change to allow for the full transition to take place. The most significant role played by user-innovators in the transition to a sustainable society is through bringing about changes in culture and governance that enable society to ‘self-regulate’ a stable relationship with the living systems of the Earth: either through accepting and helping to co-create changes in governance and cultural change put forward by the regime, or by bringing forward those changes in a context of inaction and resistance by mainstream institutions.

From our analysis of the SPREAD scenarios, we put forward a typology that describes the role of user-innovators in transition according to their active, passive, or resisting role in contributing to processes of innovation for social change and innovating at key sites needed for the transition to a self-regulating society. The latter fall into four types: (1) product and service innovation, (2) place and network-related innovation, (3) innovation of governance and social structures and (4) paradigm innovation. These sites for innovation contribute to wider sociotechnical transition by creating change through direct and indirect impacts (see table for examples). Their systemic effects may vary according to context. For example, the same place-related innovation could have the effect of building capacity for change in the Local Loops scenario, while disrupting and displacing the status quo in the scenario of Empathetic Communities.

Direct impacts (example) Indirect impacts (example)
(1) Product and service innovations Digitally-enabled transparency: Users develop, test and use new services to help monitor where their goods come from Mass uptake of digital fabrication has a knock on effect to product and service innovation, and forces a shift in business operations from value chains to networks
(2) Place and network-related innovation Experimentation leads to the reinvention of ‘guild’ structures for artisanal and other small businesses, resulting in hyper local product and service innovations ‘Modern subsistence’ living emerges, e.g. in neighbourhood cooperatives
(3) Inno-vation of governance and social structures Development of new education systems that identify and nurture those with high potential through specific educational tracks Platforms for dialogue and processes for community building, governance, conflict resolution, and decision making emerge
(4) Paradigm innovation Dominance of ‘living life online’ shifts people’s identity, impacting how societies organize and, where & how people consume Giving rise to a new economic policy narrative and ultimately to the ‘Local Loops framework’ for city regions in Europe

Food for thought about a sustainable future

What the scenarios make clear are that there are a number of future shifts required in society for sustainable lifestyles to exist, and to enable the transition to happen. The scenario content provokes new questions about how those transitions could emerge:

  • How can you unlock potential of users, entrepreneurs, communities, and citizens to play a role in the transition to a sustainable society?
  • How can we expand the definition of users and entrepreneurs to fully reflect the potential they have for enabling sustainable transitions and ultimately systems change?
  • What is the role of policy in managing the transitions to sustainable lifestyles? How can policy and management be a site of innovation as well as enabler of innovation for others?
  • What will be the dominant paradigm that emerges from the future? How can that be catalysed and how can the transition of society be best managed?

It is important to keep in mind there are no answers to these questions as the future is unknown. But the scenarios provide rich and powerful stimulus through which to explore these questions.

by Corina Angheloiu

For comments and feedback, do get in touch at c.angheloiu@forumforthefuture.org

If you’re based in London and you’d like to explore the Future Scenarios further, join us on the 19th September for second event part of the Living Change series, where we will be exploring what radically different futures look like. You can register here.

How Democratic is Crowdfunding?

Before reading this blog post I recommend you check out this short video on what crowdfunding is and maybe read my earlier post “Crowdfunding for Sustainability”.

The knowledge relevant for innovation is increasingly understood as being multifaceted and widely dispersed and hence often falls outside the respective realm of any one firm or organisation. Consequently the literature within innovation studies is increasingly moving away from its producer-centric focus and is instead also seeking to explore the role of other actors within this process. The resulting research has led some scholars to suggest that innovation has increasingly become ‘democratised’ as more actors become drivers of innovation in their own right (an interesting book on this topic, called “Decomratizing Innovation” by Eric von Hippel, can be found here). The innovative capabilities of online communities has, for example, attracted increased scholarly attention, including the potentially “disruptive force” of crowdfunding in driving and financing innovation. Especially, as it is seen to potentially reduce the geographical constraints of traditional funding, empower both entrepreneurs and end-users to steer the direction of innovation, and increase funding opportunities for both a broader range of user innovators and entrepreneurs alike. Crowdfunding specifically has also been characterized as democratizing innovation finance as it allows you and I a direct say in selecting the product and service innovations we would like to see happen through our direct support. This “open call” for finance via platforms, e.g. IndieGoGo, has by some therefore been hailed as an alternative avenue finance for business ventures that is less restrictive than traditional finance. The question, however, remains how democratic the crowdfunding process truly is both in terms of geographic distribution of resources and the individuals benefiting from this new source of finance. With this expressed goal Caleb Gallemore, Kristjan Jespersen, and I set out to follow the money and identify exactly where and who benefits from this new source of finance.

 How do we follow the money?

To some extent crowdfunding can be characterised as a web-enabled tool designed to facilitate contact between the crowdfounder (‘the person or group seeking the money’) and a prospective large group of crowdfunders (‘the people with the money i.e. you and I’). Given this web-enabled nature a ‘data scraping’ approach was identified as a useful method for studying crowdfunding as it allowed for an very effective way of collecting data. Data scraping works by programming a so-called web-crawler – a computer program – to extract a specified set of data from an indicated website. One can of course also do this manually by checking each campaign website, but as you can imagine this would get tedious very fast! Utilizing this approach, we gained access to data about all hosted, past and ongoing, projects on platform IndieGoGo – one of the largest reward-based crowdfunding platforms. And it based on this, that we have conducted our analyses.

What have we found, so far?

Firstly, and perhaps not surprisingly, it appears that it is the already affluent regions that benefit the most from crowdfunding activities, while less well-off areas still receive the short end of the stick. Clearly, while crowdfunding may offer an extra opportunity for achieving financing, this does not offset other factors that play an important role in entrepreneurial success e.g. background, education, and social network that favour areas already affluent. More surprisingly we also found that increased competition – i.e. more campaigns – actually increase the likelihood of funding success. For each percentage increase in the number of campaigns in the same neighborhood, we estimate a decrease of about 11% in the odds that each of those campaigns will receive no funding pledges. Indicating the increased competition actually results in a net positive outcome where campaigns rather than leeching of one another, generate momentum for further success. This may be because of increased levels of visibility of crowdfunding activities as a whole at the local level. In other words, people living in areas with more crowdfunding activities might be more aware of the practice, increasing the pool of potential investors. Another possibility is that areas with high levels of crowdfunding activities might generate local communities that can share knowledge and advice about the process, improving the quality of local ventures. Finally, we increasingly find that certain people are – naturally – more successful then others at achieving crowdfunding success. Witnessing that for each successful campaign launched by an individual or group the likelihood for future success increases dramatically – hence after five successful campaigns launched by a given person or group they have a near 100% chance of future success. We are perhaps witnessing the birth of the professional crowdfunder.

Early conclusions – To those who have more shall be given

As money seems to coalesce around certain regions and individuals we have to wonder whether this trend will continue. Will we increasingly see certain regions and individuals benefitting while other less well-off or professional lose out? And what does this mean for crowdfunding as the democratizing agent of innovation? It offers opportunity for you and I to drive innovation, but that innovation process itself perhaps unsurprisingly still seems to cluster around certain regions and persons. While this is by no means the final word – this is still early day research of only one sample – these observations nevertheless complicate the idea of relying on crowdfunding as a new mechanism for economic development, poverty reduction, or social action. While crowdfunding certainly provides a new way to access capital, it may not provide such access equitably.

by Kristian Roed Nielsen 

EU-InnovatE Research Fest @ TUM

Last Thursday, we held the EU-InnovatE Research Fest @ TUM to celebrate the end of our large-scale European project also locally at the leading institution. Here, we brought together more than 60 scholars and students, as well as two partners from practice, to spread the word about our project and exciting results about sustainable lifestyles, innovation, and entrepreneurship in Europe.

The welcome was held by the dean of the TUM School of Management, Prof. Gunther Friedl, who introduced the triple bottom line of sustainability (economic social, and ecological) and the importance of technologies to achieve a sustainable future in Europe. In this regard, he highlighted how the EU-InnovatE project nicely reflected the mission statement of TUM to solve grand societal challenges by working at the intersection of business and technology. Afterwards, Prof. Frank-Martin Belz introduced some of the numerous case studies we have been working with (including SomEnergia, Food Assembly, and Noem) and outlined some key findings of our project (including the power of users in sustainability transitions and a process model of sustainable entrepreneurship). Prof. Belz closed his talk with a vision for an ecosystem for sustainable entrepreneurship in the future, consisting of Technische Universität München, UnternehmerTUM & Makerspace, the TUM Center of Life Sciences and Management, and the Sustainable Entrepreneurship Award.

After a networking break, we welcomed two of our project partners from practice to hold guest speeches. First, Dr. Jens Ramsbrock – Project and Innovation Manager at BMW – gave a talk about electric driving and electrical energy storage. He provided interesting information on their pilot projects of electrical driving with end-user involvement. In addition, he gave some highly interesting and novel insights into how BMW is involved in developing innovative energy storage system solutions and the “second life” of batteries, e.g. repurposing batteries into a stationary solar-powered electric storage system. Second, we welcomed Jakob Assmann – co-founder and CEO of Polarstern – who is a prime example of a sustainable innovator and entrepreneur. Together with his co-founders, he developed a venture that offers sustainable energy (green electricity and gas produced from organic waste). Furthermore, for every new customer they acquire, the venture donates money to families in Cambodia to be invested in their own biogas plants. Through their business model, they aim at achieving a holistic and global energy turnaround towards more sustainability.

Afterwards, we jointly celebrated the successful completion of our project EU-InnovatE and made new, important contacts regarding future projects. Thank you to everyone who contributed to and participated in this wonderful event!

Country Context as a Driver of Sustainable Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Europe

Examples of sustainable ventures in Europe

Sustainability innovations are a creative and powerful tool to foster the transition towards more sustainable lifestyles. Such present themselves very differently across Europe. This diversity of the European sustainability scene has been analysed by screening for respective institutions, business concepts, NGO initiatives, and academic research centres in a relatively broad and comprehensive way. Different case studies show the unique context in different European regions:

  • Vestas (Denmark): a Danish manufacturer, seller, installer, and service provider of wind turbines
  • Helsinki Region Transport (Finland): an initiative aiming at emission free public transport by using 100% renewable biofuel in their diesel vehicles
  • Biobank (Italy): a community focusing on food, ccosmetics and detergents, e-commerce regarding organic products, and sustainable agricultural tourism
  • Red de Semillas (Spain): a network aiming at raising efforts to preserve agricultural biodiversity in the local context, facilitating and promoting the use, production, maintenance and conservation of agricultural biodiversity
  • HBCC (Hungary): promotes the increased use of renewable, mainly energy from biomass
  • Bhrugu Aranya (Poland): a blossoming International Ecovillage
  • LowCVP (UK): public-private partnership with the purpose to accelerate a sustainable shift to lower carbon vehicles and fuels
  • Belwind (Belgium): Belgium’s largest renewable power plant with 55 turbo-lines in the North Sea
  • Autolib (France): an electric car-sharing scheme in Paris and is led by Bolloré industrial group

Different roles of European citizens in the transition towards sustainable lifestyles

The results from research of the EU-InnovatE project clearly show different ways how of users and citizens can engage in and contribute to the sustainable development of our societies.

  1. As voters they legitimate representatives on the European, national and local level, which are responsible for political frameworks, rules and initiatives.
  2. Beyond this direct political process, citizens can engage in NGOs and other civil society’s activities.
  3. Users themselves often work in businesses as employees, where they may either act as Intrapreneurs or as participants of corporate citizenship activities (e.g. corporate volunteering), thus promoting the development of sustainability innovation.
  4. As consumers, they directly influence the demand side of the market through sustainable lifestyles and new consumption patterns.
  5. Additionally, users can participate in academic activities, such as the EU-InnovatE project, to express their opinions and provide information relevant for greening our markets.

It is important to mention that in reality, all of these roles are not separable from each other; rather they are rather executed simultaneously. For example, as over time a tendency exists towards growing consistency in Human behaviour, engagement in an NGO or a Corporate Volunteering project may in the long run also contribute to responsible consumer behaviour or enfold an impact on election preferences. Complementary, a general discussion as well as the inter-sectoral exchange about sustainable development contributes to a more vivid civic engagement in our society. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) want to provide a first international framework for these processes.

The relevance of country context for user innovation and entrepreneurship

However, our results also showed that regional differences among European countries are enormous (see examples of sustainable ventures above). Firstly, this includes different topics dominating the respective sustainability discussions in European countries. Moreover, culturally coded expectations (i.e. historical learning and past experiences) have pushed sustainability perceptions and expectations in different directions. Increasing economic interconnectedness inside Europe strengthens the awareness for sustainable innovation in an industry (“Imported Sustainability Aware­ness”). Thereby, however, the overall scale of exposure to global sustainability issues (e.g. climate change, social inclusion, health issues) varies substantially among European countries. Thirdly, the ‘social capital’ of a society steers sustainability perceptions in different directions. Therefore, initiatives, which are successful in one region, might not be so in another. This is because most sustainability innovations are context dependent and emerge from local knowledge and analysis. As a result, persons in different European countries are facing country (or even region) specific transaction costs of engagement for sustainable lifestyles.

Consequently, different transaction cost structures result in divergent levels of personal engagement. Persons choose the most efficient way of turning their sustainability preferences into action – results depending for example on weather effective NGOs or political initiatives exist, whether political frameworks are responsive, whether the media regularly report on corresponding issues etc. For example, in regions with effective governments, this implies voting for the most appropriate party and subsequently sticking to the established law. On the contrary, in the context of less responsive governance structures as we find them for example in many Southern European regions, engagement in local initiatives or sustainable food consumption seems to be the dominant road of sustainability engagement.

Thus, in the context of national discussions different sectors are competing for the relevance and support of the consumer-citizens. For example, in the context of less efficient and low trust political environments, genuine political initiatives seem less appropriate than in politically well organized, high trust nations. At the same time, however, important interdependencies exist among regional sectors, e.g. successful business activities require the existence of academic think tanks as well as a necessary level of administrative responsiveness. Similarly, political initiatives need support from corresponding academic research and civic engagement in order to achieve its goals.


Summing-up, for promoting innovation towards more sustainable lifestyles, it is of general interest to establish and foster sector-specific ‘hotspots’ (politics, civil society, business, consumers and academia). These include social partnerships (e.g. Bundesinitiative Mobility, an Austrian eMobility cluster for industry, users, experts and communities), sustainable entrepreneurship initiatives (e.g. “Autolib”, an electric carsharing scheme lead by Bolloré industrial group), regional consumer cooperatives (e.g. biocoop”, a cooperative of organic consumers formed in Lisbon), and academic think tanks (e.g. Sustainability Science Center in Denmark). The more options for sustainability engagement are provided by regional and national frameworks, the lower becomes the transaction cost of sustainability innovation engagement for a certain person; consequently, more uses and citizens with their individual preferences and interests can be involved. With a greater variability of (alternative) forms of engagement, citizens face an enhanced opportunity structure for sustainable lifestyles, e.g. to vote for corresponding political forces, to engage in innovative NGOs and social partnerships, to work for sustainable enterprises, to buy sustainable products, and/or to actively perceive the latest information and know-how from academic think tanks.

by Andre Habisch, Rene Schmidpeter, Franz Wenzel, and Bing Zhu