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The Fruits of Reverse Innovation


By Averill Brewer

Solving our world’s waste problem (the 2.6 trillion tons of garbage going into landfills worldwide) will continue to require the ingenuity of scientists, engineers and businesswomen/men alike. Michael Braungart and William McDonough’s school of thought is that one way to alleviate our waste problem is by designing products so that they are made up of either biological or technical nutrients. Products designed with such materials are able to remain in a closed loop circle, never reaching a grave, i.e. landfill, because the product has the ability to either 1) biodegrade safely, returning to the soil or 2) maintain its value throughout an infinite product lifecycle of manufacturing, reuse and recovery.

However, the question still remains about what do with all of that other stuff sitting in our landfills and dumps. Although the World Bank’s most recent report on global waste conveys that OECD countries are responsible for generating the most waste, the overall ability of municipalities in the OECD countries to manage solid waste is pretty seamless. Emerging economies lacking in reliable waste management coordination and infrastructure via their municipalities are finding innovative solutions to chip away at the problems visibly burdening their countryside.

It makes perfect sense that some of our most valuable contributions to sustainable innovation will come from emerging economies because, when faced with adversity, inventiveness arises to solve the problems plaguing them. Reverse innovation is innovation that is first seen in emerging economies, before it is spread to the industrialized world. Below are examples of reverse innovation on a country-by-country basis


In 2002, the Khan brothers of KK Plastic Waste Management Ltd, a Bangalore-based firm, began building roads with a technology they developed that reuses plastic waste, so it can be combined in the asphalting of roads. KK Plastic Waste Management continues to invest in the research of plastic waste and its reuse into other construction materials. The plant processes up to 30 metric tons of plastic waste per day, according to the company's website.

With volatile fluctuations in the recycled scraps buyer’s market, like China's Green Fence Initiative, we must look for other options about how to deal with our trash, especially recyclables, that are no longer wanted due to their low-grade qualities. The Khan brothers’ technology has received worldwide attention and numerous awards. Industrialized countries are learning from the Khan’s innovation and beginning to adapt the technology into their own city streets and highways.

For example, Dutch company VolkerWessels and the city of Rotterdam, Netherlands, are seriously considering using plastic waste combined with asphalt to build highways. As consumer economies like India’s continue to grow in developing countries, causing an increase in consumption, there will be more opportunities to turn the world’s trash into innovative and sustainable treasures. There is plenty of room for the exchange of technology and ideas between all economies as we continue to learn from one another.


The opportunity to start from scratch — to literally build from the ground up -- may seem like a dream scenario for many in the field of sustainable development. Transforming an area sustainably from its conception without having to delicately balance various states of transition is becoming a reality on the island of Príncipe, part of the archipelago chain of Sao Tome, off the coast of West Africa.

Plans are underway to develop Africa’s first sustainable island, the island of Príncipe. The development is rooted in eco-tourism and aims to create sustainable economic growth for the island, promote the conservation of biodiversity, and create awareness about Príncipe’s natural riches.

Additional practices of sustainable development include: the use of sustainable building materials in the create of all accommodations on the island; and the incorporation of renewable sources of energy like solar power, self filtering water systems and strict waste-management rules, as well as sustainable agriculture and fisheries in order to reduce dependence on food imports and to also create employment opportunities for locals. You can read more about the principles under which the island is being developed here.

With time, Príncipe’s success will provide an exemplary model of sustainable development, whose principles can be adopted in different ways globally. The lessons acquired from this project will possess the capacity to serve as a means of reverse innovation as industrialized countries can learn from a set of Príncipe’s best practices.

In Brazil, the world’s first solar-powered stadium has been built, inspired by upcoming mega-events like the 2016 Olympics. But nonetheless embodying sustainable principles like the use of renewable energy and rainwater harvesting to reduce water consumption.

The success of projects in sustainable development, whether taking place in emerging economies or industrialized economies, creates a unique opportunity for sharing knowledge and innovation. The above examples convey that progress is in sustainable development is not limited to any one type of demographic, socio-economic situation, nor is it dependent on the wealth or poverty of a nation. Sustainability is a global concept whose benefits can enhance the quality of life for everyone.

Image credit: Flickr/Jonathan Pincas 

Averill Brewer is a writer currently living in England. This autumn, she completed a master’s degree in international business with a focus in sustainable development. In her free time, she writes for her blog www.locoeco.com. Feel free to email her at averill.brewer@gmail.com.

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