Sustainability innovation through strategic foresight
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Sustainability leaders like Yvon Chouinard (Patagonia), Mark Constantine (Lush) and Anita Roddick (Body Shop) shared one thing in common: they showed to the world that we can think and perform differently. They put in practice skills that enable them to connect dots that the rest of us were not able to see. Their innovative ideas have not only made their business operations more sustainable, but they have also influenced consumption practices, social values and the way we think about the natural environment and nonhuman animals. The question then remains: are some of us born more innovative than others?
Fortunately, innovative sustainability thinking is a skill that can be trained. We only need to exercise the right muscles and learn to be more open minded. Indeed, we cannot be innovative, if we keep our head buried in the sand like the ostrich (no offence intended, ostriches are fabulous animals). Sustainability innovators are not just looking at what their competitors are doing or what their current customers’ demands and needs are. Although all of this is important, it is not enough for coming up with new sustainable business ideas.
Sustainability innovation requires taking one's head out of the sand and taking a look beyond the sandbox. We need to look beyond our business sector and follow what is happening in other industries and society in general. We cannot predict the future, but we can certainly spot signals that tells us something about future developments. Two foresight tools, which we have been using in service design and sustainability workshops with both students (e.g. Designing Tourism Futures) and practitioners, are environmental scanning and the weak signal family game.
Environmental scanning refers to the process of systematically monitoring the world around us. What social and political events are taking place? What are people interested in and concern about? What are the values driving our society? How is technology shaping production and consumption practices? When carrying out an environmental scanning, we are looking for indicators of future changes, that is, weak signals, trends, megatrends and wild cards (also check the futuregraphics by Elina Hiltunen).
In service design and sustainability workshops, we divide the environmental scanning process in two parts. First, we start with the collection of indicators of future changes by navigating through foresight databases (e.g. Cool Hunting, Trend Watching, Trend Hunter) and regularly following and monitoring social media, events, news, and things happening in our everyday life. Then, we classify the collected material and save it in an online platform. For example, we have found Padlet to be an useful tool for collecting, storing and displaying these indicators as part of workshop excersises (see below).
During the environmental scanning, workshop participants get new information that shapes their view of the world and events occurring around them. They also begin to challenge and question their ideas about how things are and ought to be - the latter is crucial for sustainability innovation. Although environmental scanning includes weak signals, trends, megatrends, and wild cards, we give particular attention to weak signals as they usually challenge our assumptions about the status quo and thus, expand our perception of more sustainable futures.
Weak signal family game
The weak signals collected in the environmental scanning can then be used to play the weak signal family game. As currently existing small and insignificant issues, weak signals provide us with clues about possible events and changes in the future. In this terms, the weak signal family game has proved to be useful for helping participants understand what the weak signals identified are about, which future development they indicate and how they could be used for designing more sustainable products and services. Indeed, through the game, we cannot only learn to anticipate changes, but also find inspiration for service design and sustainability.
How to play the weak signal family game? Playing the game is simple. You just need to follow the following steps:
Display the weak signals collected through the environmental scanning on a table or an online platform (e.g. Padlet).
Get familiar with the weak signals.
Select five to seven weak signals.
Create a weak signal family with the weak signals selected (if needed, you can still change your mind and replace some of the weak signals innitially chosen).
Interprete and reflect on the phenomenon represented by the weak signal family that you created.
Give a name to the weak signal family.
You can play the game alone, but it is more fun to play it with others, for example, classmates or co-workers. In groups, you can introduce your weak signal family to others, promote further discussions, which in turn will lead towards further insights, a deeper understanding of the future and how to support sustainability innovation.
Ps. if you would like to get assistance with the tools presented in this blog, please don't hesitate in getting in touch. And in case you are interested in learning more about foresight in tourism, check the module Ennakointi ja tulevaisuusosaaminen which is part of Vastuullisen matkailun portaat (Responsible Tourism Stairs) educational training.