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Innovation and Sustainability: A Moment of Conscious Decision

CCA LiveE | Friday December 17th, 2010 | 1 Comment

This post is part of a year-end series by MBA students at California College of the Arts’ Design MBA Program. Read more about our annual partnership here.

By Laura Ramos


Scene 1: “Which bin do I use?”  A woman stands in front of three bins contemplating where to put her trash.  Only trash isn’t just trash anymore.  She ponders the options for a minute and then throws the compostable container into the compost pile, the empty soda can into recycling, and the plastic wrap into the trash.

We have recyclable, reusable, compostable and landfill-destined trash.  Our cities have added further complication with their inconsistent definitions of where paper, glass, plastic and aluminum belong.  How do people get to the point where they just know which bin to use?

Scene 2: “Do I suggest we just prototype and experiment?”  A frustrated team member sits stewing during a meeting as the larger group debates whether an idea they’ve just had will work.  Taking that first step, trying something without a known outcome seems to paralyze the group from moving forward.

Many definitions for innovation exist, but one element remains constant:  the quest for something new to emerge and even revolutionize our world.  New and revolutionary, however, are fraught with uncertainty and the ability for someone to take a turn into doubt and solitude can happen pretty quickly.  Many times, it’s easier to not do anything; receiving encouragement along the way makes a difference.

What both of these scenes have in common:  I was the person faced with these dilemmas.  As these situations pop up more frequently in my daily life, I start to wonder:  Can we ever get to a point where the answer is instinctively known?

Frequently compared but thought of as different efforts, innovation and sustainability both require behavior change through constant and everyday reinforcement.  If the bin wasn’t there, a person would never have that moment of pause wondering where to put their trash.  In an innovation context, nothing would happen if champions/mentors weren’t encouraging you to take that leap of faith.

Sustainability and innovation often get tagged as being too hard to define or too grandiose to achieve anything.  Unlike some projects, neither has a definable end point.  The target will continue to change as new milestones are reached.  For individuals standing on a street or sitting in an office, it’s too hard for them to know how to participate.  To gain progress, we have to find ways to make these efforts more accessible – to allow for many moments of accomplishment.

So how can we construct moments of conscious decision?  Through the use of what I call proximity awareness moments – those moments where something “hits you over the head” and requires you to consciously consider a particular decision to make.  These moments tend to be visual or physical markers (e.g. a sign showing where to dispose each takeout container you can get), but can also be intellectual markers (e.g. Asking in a meeting, “are we going to test this with consumers before building it?).  Frequent and continuous moments have to occur for any impact.  People, however, need proof that success might be possible.  They also need to be intercepted often and in unexpected ways.

The problem is that not enough proximity awareness moments exist or are overshadowed by other messages trying to get out.  This calls for people within the innovation and sustainability movements to reconsider how they create awareness and action within their constituencies and in recruiting new participants.  The stopping power of well-designed signage and messages becomes more critical than ever.

At the same time, consider when frequent and continuous moments of reinforcement have occurred throughout your lifetime and leverage their simplicity. With innovation and sustainability movements still in their infancy, now is the time to explore those analogous experiences as we kick start efforts to bring lasting impact to the environment and our thinking.   I hope that one day, I’ll successfully know where to put the trash.


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  • http://nerds-central.blogspot.com Alex Turner

    Failures of omission are worse than failures of commission but not tracked. So, for your team to commit to prototyping makes their choice traceable and thus puts them in the firing line. Doing nothing is bad but will not be traced and they cannot ‘get into trouble’.

    In most organisations, failure is looked down upon. BUT innovation requires failure. The point of a prototype is that it might not work – that is why one does not commit to the full thing up front.

    We need to come up with a very different set of concepts as to what success is before innovation or sustainability can achieve the frictionless state you are looking for.