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A framework for sustainable innovation

Thanks to research by Justyna Spurtacz as part of the Sustainability Driven Innovation Program based at Cranfield University, SMEs in the print sector have a new tool to embrace sustainable innovation. So will you use it?

‘How can ongoing sustainable innovation can be achieved in the printing industry? Building strategic tools for SMEs.’ That was the title of the project Justyna Spurtacz set herself as part of the Sustainability Driven Innovation Program funded by the European Regional Development Fund at Cranfield University. This September saw her release the findings from her months of research and evaluation, which includes a new Sustainable Innovation Framework (SIF) and Sustainability-led Service Blueprint (SSB) which will get an airing here, but will they prompt you to take sustainable innovation seriously?

The aim of Spurtacz’s study was to identify knowledge transfer strategies to implement sustainable innovation (SI) concepts in SMEs within the print industry (for research purposes, those in the of east of England.)

This meant identifying the knowledge transfer barriers faced by SMEs; understanding current challenges in the print industry and the identification of current tends; assessing the suitability of existing support tools for the print industry; developing tool design recommendations; the development of a new tool and its evaluation by industry experts and SMEs; and the incorporation of suggested improvements to the new tool and the making of recommendations for future use and development.

First hand research led to a series of key findings that will hardly surprise many print SMEs, being much in line with the findings Image Reports found in its own survey of UK/Ireland printers earlier this year (see Widthwise 2011).

Spurtacz’s research showed that knowledge transfer on sustainability is not considered a driver to innovation by print SMEs, and that innovation and sustainability are terms rarely linked together within the industry. Sustainable innovation as a concept is perceived by print SMEs at around level 1 of Stevels (1997) sustainability ladder - incremental changes that generate small improvements. As such print SMEs do not perceive sustainability as a potentially innovative business opportunity. It is perceived as a threat. Sustainability ideas are approached with distrust as SMEs in the print industry see it as intangible and do not recognise it as beneficial. Lack of commercial edge was confirmed as a barrier to sustainable innovation within the sector and businesses showed themselves to be suspicious about linking sustainability and profit together.

The research highlighted that sustainability activities are executed as a reaction to legislation and customer demand rather than proactive strategy, and that sustainability legislation and strategies that could be used to create competitive advantage are treated more as a liability than investment in business growth.

Concepts of sustainable thinking are considered abstract and unrelated to real business problems (though SMEs recognise the need for reduction, reuse and recycling). However, those SMEs who see the potential of sustainable innovation driving their business identified practical barriers for its transition to the small business community - namely the lack of available resources.

What was clearly identified in this research, said Spurtacz, was that SMEs require tangible support into sustainability related activities, but that few support models or tools are communicated to the industry. She argues that most environmentally orientated tools such as Product Lifecycle Assessment, Leeds Wheel etc. are very complex and do not respond to the SME needs. Different sustainable development conceptual frameworks (i.e. lifecycle thinking and cradle to cradle) introduce principles but strategies for implementation are general or abstract.

From this research process it has been identified that tools related to general innovation and creativity can stimulate sustainable innovation in the SMEs by setting them in a sustainability context.

Tools such as service blueprinting, road mapping, and rich picture have been identified as they relate directly to business context and operations.

Thus Spurtacz came up with a number of recommendations for the design of sustainable innovation knowledge transfer tools for SMEs:

z Role of an expert and facilitator to support sustainable innovation is crucial - the facilitator being a knowledge source and a translator of academia’s language into that used by SMEs. To have a role in assessing business needs and capabilities and set an appropriate direction for sustainable development by choosing models and tools
- Emphasis of benefits coming from use of sustainable innovation tools is key for SMEs to attempt its use
- Role modelling by case studies related to the business context are important so the business could relate own context and stimulate thinking about sustainable issues
- Assessment of business needs and capabilities is important to tailor effective set of tools that can generate implementable results
And so the Sustainable Innovation Framework (SIF) and Sustainability-led Service Blueprint (SSB) were born, to provide contextualised structured models on possible strategies for the introduction of sustainable innovation within print SMEs.

The Sustainable Innovation Framework
SIF has been developed to meet the print industry’s SME requirement for structured, easily relatable and understandable models that bridge an existing gap between academic sustainability concepts and reality of SMEs operations.
It is based on the analysis of standard learning process and requirements generated from studying SME’s capabilities and barriers to knowledge transfer and approach to sustainable innovation.
The framework objectives are to:
- Provide knowledge on the newest sustainable innovation trends in the print industry
- Identify business capabilities that create competitive advantage
- Explore new business opportunities
- Explore implementation strategies
SIF is a four-step process that consists of the following building blocks: knowledge, capability, opportunity and exploration.

Aim: for the SME to develop sufficient knowledge about current thinking and practices
Objective: to allow the company to understand the concept of sustainable innovation and current market developments in that direction by exploring trends and innovations within the print industry and group for its own needs
Tools: company assessment, case study, mind map, trend mapping

Aim: to identify business strengths related to sustainable development
Objective: to identify the SME’s own capabilities and view them within the boundaries of sustainable innovation and growth. To allow the SME to view current business activities and position from the new perspective
Tools: mind map, SWOT, PESTEL, service lifecycle

Aim: to explore business opportunities that arise from the identification of capabilities and knowledge gained about sustainable innovation in a context of product service system operations. to focus on understanding an SME’s own service operations from a more sustainable perspective
Objective: to generate possible business and service improvement in ideas in a context of sustainable innovation.
Tools: perspective exercises, what if?, ideas list, random variable, service blueprinting.
Aim: to allow the evaluation of possible implementation scenarios and their impact on business growth and future development.
Objective: to produce an implementation strategy
Tools: roadmap, scenario, what if? categorisation
Spurtacz says tools allocated to the above blocks have the potential to aid development of sustainable innovation when put in the sustainability context. Project time constrains meant she could not develop all the tools supporting the SIF blocks, but opted to develop the Sustainability-led Service Blueprint (SSB) because she found it to be the most relevant for print industry’s needs.

Sustainability-led Service Blueprint
This tool was developed as a part of the ‘Opportunity’ block and aims to identify sustainable innovation opportunities in the product service system. It was designed to start SMEs thinking about practical improvement of their product service systems, but in a directed (sustainability oriented) way.
The objectives for implementing it within business are to:
- Identify service innovation/improvement
- Gain customer experience understanding and identify improvements
- Explore possible resource optimisation
- Identify lean management strategy establishing possibilities
Both the SIF framework and the SSB tool, while going through the first phase of evaluation, were identified as creating value to the business and having potential to create truly tangible sustainable innovation strategies that are workable within print SMEs. Nevertheless, Spurtacz says further evidence-based evaluation is required to confirm that result as well as to allow for any necessary amendments moving forward.

Image reports will be keeping in close contact with Justyna Spurtacz. If you are interested in her research on this topic and the development of her SIF/SSB please email: lesley.simpson@imagereports mag.co.uk

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