GE has asked the members of its Citizenship Advisory Panel to reflect on trends and key challenges for sustainable development in 2013. This post by Dawn Rittenhouse explores the challenge of integrating sustainability into the product-innovation cycle.
It is increasingly recognized that a business’s impacts on society and the environment don’t stop at the factory gate. The company’s footprint starts with its supply chain and extends into the impacts that its products have during the life cycle of their use and ultimate disposal. Assessments for many products indicate that the largest impacts, and therefore the largest opportunities for making real change, are in the use phase.
Reducing negative impacts and enhancing benefits and efficiency requires a change in the mind-set of and approach to product development. Researchers have to find out how customers really use products so that they can develop new solutions that work. They need to include a broader set of criteria than traditional cost and performance in their assessments, and they need to think about this at the earliest stage in the development of new products and technologies. Often, important shifts are needed not only in the design of products, but also in the way that they are used. Critical to the innovation process is working out how to communicate to customers and enable them to change their behaviors to take advantage of innovations. Compound this with the imperative of developing culturally appropriate products to meet global needs and it can feel like an overwhelming challenge to the research community.
Life-cycle thinking—both in terms of impacts and cost—is a critically important tool, but maximizing the value of the approach depends on researchers having a fundamental understanding of sustainability challenges. In the end, we don’t see what we have not thought about, so expanding exposure to sustainability thinking is the first important step in integrating sustainability into the product-innovation cycle.