Sustainability Needs Innovation, Innovation Needs Sustainability

Image by Karsten Wurth via Unsplash

The capability of innovation is what separates humans from other sentient beings, yet this same innovative power could be what brings about our destruction. When looking at various lists that detail the ‘greatest’ innovations in history (such as this National Geographic article) 1 2 3, it is usually innovations such as the light bulb, airplane, motor car, refrigeration, computer, fossil fuels that take first place. However, these innovations have contributed greatly to the environmental degradation of the planet, which begs the question of whether they can be considered truly ‘innovative’ if they have directly led to the environmental crisis we now find ourselves in.

If the motor car or even the aeroplane was initially invented as an emission free vehicle, then today’s scientists could have more room to continue making the system more efficient, rather than draining their brains to find solutions to decarbonise the automobile industry. Similar arguments could be proposed for many other inventions that came along in a time before the word ‘sustainability’ was commonly understood. In fact, all high carbon emissions are due to innovations made during the last 300 years. Therefore, we need a more pro-environmental perception towards identifying what defines innovation.

There is an interesting interplay between sustainability and need for sustainable innovations,4 and it is important to observe that innovations are identified as ‘innovative’ only by the prevailing social context. Csikszentmihalyi proposes the notion that society as a collective body are the ‘gate keepers’ for creativity, determining whether a new product or a system is innovative or not.5 Therefore, we as gate keepers have a responsibility for identifying sustainable innovations and making sustainability the new evaluation benchmark.


If innovations can become a challenge, why are human beings so determined to innovate? Can we survive without innovation? The simple answer is no. Sustainability itself is entirely dependent on our ability to innovate. If we did not innovate, we could never achieve anticipated targets across every sector. Jaksic argues that “sustainable business development rests upon sustainable technology and innovation; managing technological change directly influences sustainable competitiveness of business operation.6 This also includes developing new strategies to address the crucial challenge of climate change.7

The existence of many top lists specifically for sustainable innovations on sites such as Medium and Interesting Engineering8 9 is a progressive indicator that we are moving towards the correct paradigm shift. Yet, we as gatekeepers should still be critical prior to accepting anything as innovative merely because it is original.10 11 Innovations should be evaluated by their impact to transform the world in a sustainable way, which can lead to a social, economic and environmental equilibrium. Thus, building a more integrated concept of ‘sustainnovation’, and bridging the gap between the two notions could provide hope for the future of sustainable development.

1. The Atlantic. The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel. Access here.
2. National Geographic. The 10 Inventions that Changed the World. Access here.
3. BIG THINK. Top 20 greatest inventions of all time. Access here.
4. Anadon, L., Chan, G., Harley, A., Matus, K., Moon, S., Murthy, S., & Clark, W. (2016). Making technological innovation work for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(35), 9682-9690. doi:10.1073/pnas.1525004113
5. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1998). Society, culture, person: A systems view of creativity. In R. Sternberg, J (Ed.), The nature of creativity(pp. 325 – 339). New York: Cambridge University Press.
6. Jaksic, M., Rakicevic, J., & Jovanovic, M. (2018). Sustainable Technology and Business Innovation Framework-A Comprehensive Approach. Amfiteatru Economic, 20(48), 418-436. doi:10.24818/EA/2018/48/418
7. Carayannis , E. G., Barth, T. D., & Campbell, D. F. J. (2012). The Quintuple Helix innovation model: global warming as a challenge and driver for innovation. Journal of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 1(2).
8. Interesting Engineering. 21 Sustainability Innovations and Initiatives That Might Just Change the World. Access here.
9. The Medium. 5 of tomorrow’s best sustainable innovations. Access here.
10. Amabile, T. (1998). How to kill creativity. Harvard Business Review, 76(5), 76-+.
11. Sternberg, R. (2006). The nature of creativity. Creativity Research Journal, 18(1), 87-98. doi:10.1207/s15326934crj1801_10

Niranjika Wijesooriya is an architect currently reading for her PhD in architecture at the University of Sydney. She is an Associate member of the Green Building Council of Sri Lanka.  Her research is focused on exploring innovative approaches and use climate design interactions to promote action towards climate change mitigation.  Her research interests are use of digital interaction arts for climate change education, biophilic Design, climate action intervention design, low carbon living and understanding pro-environmental behaviour.

This blog post is a part of the SEI’s Student Blog Series, which features original content by Honours, Masters and PhD students at the University of Sydney who are undertaking research on environmental issues and topics. If you are a current postgraduate student at the University of Sydney who would like to participate in the series, click here for details.