Product, Service & Design Innovation
How to Innovate on Future Product Concepts That Are Better for Your Business, Our World

Workshops often vary in their composition of speaker insights, Q&As and practical activities, but Monday afternoon’s SB’15 London session with Chris Sherwin, Head of Sustainability at design firm Seymourpowell, was all about active participation. You’d expect a workshop focused on product design and innovation to be a hub for brewing and evolving ideas (from the obvious to the most far-fetched) and it lived up to expectations.

If Seymourpowell’s design and innovation success with this approach in its work with the likes of Cadbury, Unilever, Virgin Atlantic, Samsung and the new Fairphone 2 was to be believed, then the packed room of attendees were on board to give it a try.

Sherwin kicked off the session with a brief introduction to the importance of looking at sustainable product innovation for changing the way brands operate. In discussing the various strategies that brands commonly implement to develop more sustainable practices, he highlighted the lack of genuine innovation in any of these approaches.

“I think, putting our innovation glasses on, we feel that brands could do much more on sustainable innovation. It almost feels like they’re a bit ‘hamstrung’,” he remarked. “That’s probably a little more frustrating because we feel it’s a key missed opportunity for brands. If you take a look at the business case for this stuff, for investing in sustainable innovation, it’s actually very strong now.”

The survey numbers speak for themselves in making the commercial case for sustainable innovation: One survey found that revenues from sustainable products were increasing at six times the rate of the traditional portfolio within companies. A range of other studies has shown similar results in the profitability of sustainable products, especially when consumer expectations for more ethical purchasing choices are on the rise.

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Rather than tweaking small parts of a product’s value chain or impacts, Sherwin emphasised that the main environmental impacts of a product occur at the very start of its creation - in its core functionality - creating the need to totally rethink the product from its early stages. So, for the next two hours, that is exactly what we did.

“Innovation is a participation sport,” he remarked. The most effective way to test-drive sustainable innovation is by doing it. He then split attendees into three groups and instructed us to apply innovative thinking to three real-life, everyday challenges (with a focus on creating and selecting ideas only):

  • Shower: How can we halve the environmental footprint of showering?
  • Fridge: How can we dramatically reduce the impact of using domestic fridges?
  • Heating: How can we make heating people’s homes sustainably for less than £500?

Armed with a team of Seymourpowell’s facilitators and designers, each group set to work on developing new solutions to each of these high-impact challenges. The first step involved a run-through of recent innovations in the sector through changes in three categories: technology, behaviour, and business model approaches. The next brainstorming step involved a mix of tweaked, improved versions of existing products and completely new ideas. The key reiteration of the session: nothing is off-limits — this step in the innovation process is about outside thinking, idea collaboration and pushing the boundaries.

The third step in the development process involved taking the range of suggested ideas, selecting some of the most promising and drawing them up into more visual product representations. Thanks to the team of skilled designers, it was a treat to see these ideas come to life within minutes.

Within 75 minutes, the three teams had generated and sketched out an impressive 37 shortlisted ideas for tackling these sustainability challenges. The view, review and score session provided an interesting opportunity to explore, discuss and rate some of the product offerings. Ranging from Dyson-esque shower experience portals to outside winter fridges, heated clothing items to smart-metered neighbourhood competition initiatives, the ideas were diverse in both strategic approach and level of ambition.

The workshop’s post-it sticker scoring system for the best idea, most creative, and most sustainable product was evidently integrated to incite a more fun and competitive edge to the whole process, but also served as an important reflection of how this process would be undertaken within a company. Scoring ideas based on their merit, credibility and level of impact are all important steps in narrowing down an idea portfolio to those worth pursuing further.

Although this stage was where the workshop ended, Sherwin finished the session by walking through a real case-study example of the next steps after the idea-generation/sketching stage.

“That was fun, there was a lot of energy in the room. However I didn’t want anyone to leave with a sense that all innovation really involves is to generate ideas, then cross your fingers and hope - that innovation just happens,” he said. “I wanted to give you a sense of what happens after this stage and how we work on getting great innovations to market.”

Drawing on insights from the project Seymourpowell worked on with Cadbury on its chocolate-sharing Creations concept, Sherwin outlined the key next steps in product development:

  • utilising a range of market analysis insights — drawing on data from competitors, same-sector and other sector analyses, vetting some of the best ideas for their suitability and attraction as a concept in existing and future markets;
  • exploring a range of potential product designs which fit with the most promising concepts;
  • prototyping and testing the best of these ideas, especially on potential consumers, to gauge the level of response and assess marketability;
  • once these ideas have been narrowed to the most promising, undergoing a more detailed and concrete design process.

This final note from Sherwin was a stark reminder of just how challenging the full innovation process is — the preceding workshop session was only a brief taster of how this journey begins, but it did provide a stirring insight into how this process is kick-started. If Seymourpowell’s portfolio is any reflection of where this process can lead, then surely it’s a journey worth starting.

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