Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An Open Model of Innovation

Although focus groups continue to indicate that there is broad based interest in Green, as of yet that level of interest is not reflected in actual buying behavior. "

Awareness of eco issues and interest in environmental lifestyles has risen dramatically" explains green activist and innovation strategist Jennifer van der Meer, "but there is still an alarming gap between those who say they want green options and those that actually buy into or try to live a greener lifestyle."

Corporations are increasingly offering more than just statements and promises, but the future of Green depends on commercially viable product development and marketing. For van der Meer the key is "translating consumer needs back into business and design requirements. [T]he nature of this challenge requires constant, ongoing conversation between all the elements. The rise of web-based communities and social networks are the very thing necessary for everyone to participate in these experiments."

Van der Meer's idea is to tap the creative, proactive energy of smart, visionary people around the world to solve these larger challenges. Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research calls this The Groundswell: 'a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other instead of from companies.' In this context, progressive brands provide a service of creating platforms for people to connect and collaborate with the people inside and outside of company boundaries.

When emerging green consumers are asked "to take the time to give their real opinion about their lifestyle, they reveal an untapped desire to participate in the process. When you...engage people in the challenge of designing a green future, they want to do so much more than just vote with their wallet. One-on-one interviews, blog studies, and focus groups [indicate that] People wanted to dissect how they chose to eat their food, build their home, rely on transportation, raise their children, and create meaning in their lives."

Consumers want Green products, but they will not compromise. "Although over 50% of consumers want greener, more natural housing cleaners, only 5% actually purchase this category of product. Consumers do not want tradeoffs, they are not willing to settle for a product that performs less than a more eco-unfriendly alternative."

To address the discrepancy between interest and buying behavior, we need to include consumers at the product development stage. Van der Meer, advocates an Open Model of Innovation, a sustainability driver, that leverages tools "like ethnography and sophisticated needs analysis. When given the opportunity, these methods drive the whole development process towards more meaningful and commercially viable innovation. These user-centered methods are the precursor for solving the green problem.

According to van der Meer, impediments include the old compartmentalized structure, "which resulted in confusion all along the chain, the initial pleasure and fascination with the complexity of the problem devolved into fatigue amongst the newly green converts at the consumer and corporate level." Ideas often get watered down between conception and launch. "This is in fact where the activity of greenwashing occurs--good intentions turn into skepticism, compromises, and incidental innovation.

Value creation is limited when people inside of companies are limited to their department, their role and their phase gate in the innovation process. When value creation is opened up, consumers are happy to supply ideas, content, taste, social acceptance, and emotional drivers that ultimately lead to behavioral change. These participatory models demonstrate a path forward for sustainable innovation.

Even companies locked into the industrial economy can also adopt open innovation, connecting the corporate value chain to partners, vendors, suppliers, and emerging entrepreneurial ventures. Sustainably minded companies invite community stakeholders, third party auditors, and environmental NGOs into the innovation process to vet green standards, develop workable solutions, and verify claims.

As van der Meer points out, participation is the key to innovation. "The roles of designers, product development specialists, and marketers should never have been as segmented and will never be again. The green challenge is now the innovation catalyst for a whole new way to do business. To fix the destructive and even alienating industrial chain of production, we have to blend the relationship between consumer and producer. We need to envision a new way to work, play, and live--a new way to create our own future."

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