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Long-term ideas: Why the horizon is shifting for innovation

Since the crisis began, people have become more aware of the world’s fragility and interconnectedness. Businesses are responding by shifting their attention from the short to the longer term.

Innovation is playing an instrumental role in driving this trend. According to new research by Lenovo, more than half (54%) of business leaders say the crisis has catalysed their efforts around social and environmental innovation.

“When we talk about carbon neutrality, or climate and sustainability, every initiative is a long road,” explains Yoichiro Hirai, Managing Director and Partner, Head of APAC and Japan at BCG Digital Ventures. “We have to think about making a difference over two or three decades, even half a century. Corporates realise that, if they don't start now, the change won’t happen. That’s one positive change since Covid-19.”

Setting new sights

As the world gets ready for COP26, climate change is front of mind. More than four in 10 (42%) describe environmental sustainability as a key driver of their innovation activity – almost as many as cite the need to meet changing consumer needs (46%) or keep up with competitors (43%).

“All the big retailers and brands have become more conscious about their environmental impact,” agrees Pamela Mar, Executive Vice President of Knowledge and Applications at the Fung Academy. In a period that has seen global campaigns for social change, including the Black Lives Matter movement, stakeholders are not only concerned with environmental sustainability. “Brands are also obliged to be conscious of the social impacts of their products,” she adds.

In Lenovo’s research, 42% are creating more inclusive products for a diverse population. As they do so, they will find that their innovation efforts create a virtuous circle. More than half say embracing diversity will make them more innovative as a business, which will broaden their understanding of the challenges faced by individuals living beyond traditional boundaries.

Breaking old habits

Resetting the innovation timeframe, however essential, is far from straightforward. Business leaders need to improve their understanding and forecasting of long-term strategic goals, and how investing in innovation will realise those ambitions.

It’s often a question of data, says Scott Anthony, Senior Partner at Innosight. “The tyranny of numbers inside many organizations can be a real barrier to innovation,” he warns. “When you’re trying to do something that’s different from what you’ve done before, the numbers just aren't there.”

There is also a challenge in knowing how best to make a positive difference. “Everybody is always at the beginning of their journey because the landscape is changing so quickly,” notes Mary Jacques, Director, Global Environmental Affairs & Sustainability, Lenovo. “The challenge is to both understand the full impact of your decisions and make choices that drive the biggest benefit, for both your organization and the world at large.

“For example, we’ve chosen to source closed loop recycled content for our products from the general IT and electronics wastestream as opposed to our own exclusive return streams. By doing so, we’re providing a long-term sustainable solution and addressing a wider industry problem by providing uses for significant volumes of post-consumer and closed loop recycled content.

Collectively, Lenovo has used over nine million kilograms of net closed loop recycled content plastics, and we expect that number to increase as we continue to expand the program.”

The challenge touches on multiple dimensions, but the bottom line is that sustainability is here to stay. Covid-19 has simply accelerated the agenda, with consumers, employees, suppliers, and policymakers all pushing for change. As a discipline that was once associated with faddishness and frivolity, innovation is growing up fast.

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